NASA's moon rocket is on its way to launch despite the lightning

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA’s New Moon rocket remained on track to launch on a crucial test flight Monday despite a series of lightning strikes on the launch pad.

The 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful ever built by NASA. It is poised to send an empty crew capsule into lunar orbit, half a century after NASA’s Apollo program landed 12 astronauts on the moon.

Astronauts could return to the moon in a few years if this six-week test flight goes well. NASA officials, however, warn that the risks are high and the flight may be cut short.

Instead of astronauts, three test dummies are strapped into the Orion capsule to measure vibration, acceleration and radiation, one of the biggest dangers to humans in deep space. The capsule alone has more than 1,000 sensors.

Officials said Sunday that neither the rocket nor the capsule suffered damage during Saturday’s thunderstorm; ground equipment was also unaffected. Five lightning strikes were confirmed striking the 600-foot (183-meter) towers surrounding the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The impacts were not strong enough to warrant major retests.

“Clearly, the system is working as designed,” said Jeff Spaulding, NASA’s senior test director.

More storms were expected. Although forecasters gave an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather Monday morning, conditions were expected to worsen during the two-hour launch window.

On the technical side, Spaulding said the team has done everything possible over the past few months to eliminate any lingering fuel leaks. Two countdown tests earlier this year prompted repairs to leaking valves and other faulty equipment; the engineers won’t know if all the fixes are good until a few hours before the scheduled takeoff.

After so many years of delays and setbacks, the launch team was thrilled to finally be so close to the inaugural flight of the Artemis moon exploration program, named after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

“We’re now within 24 hours of launch, which is pretty amazing for where we’ve been on this journey,” Spaulding told reporters.

The next Artemis flight, back in 2024, will see four astronauts fly around the moon. A landing could follow in 2025. NASA is heading to the moon’s unexplored south pole, where permanently shadowed craters are believed to contain ice that could be used by future crews.

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