CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) – NASA’s New Moon rocket remained on track to launch on a mission 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 rocket NASA has ever built. An empty crew capsule is set to send into lunar orbit, half a century after NASA’s Apollo program, which landed 12 astronauts on the moon’s surface.
Astronauts could return to the Moon within a few years, if this six-week test flight goes well. However, NASA officials warn that the stakes are high and the flight could be cut short.
In place of the astronauts, three test dummies were attached to the Orion capsule to measure vibration, acceleration and radiation, one of the biggest risks to humans in deep space. The capsule alone contains more than 1,000 sensors.
Neither the missile nor the capsule was damaged during Saturday’s thunderstorm, officials said Sunday. Ground equipment was also not affected. Five strikes were confirmed, striking the 600-foot (183-meter) lightning pylons surrounding the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The blows weren’t strong enough to warrant a major retest.
“The system clearly works as designed,” said Jeff Spaulding, NASA’s senior director of tests.
More storms are expected. Although forecasters put 80% odds of acceptable weather Monday morning, conditions are expected to deteriorate during the two-hour launch period.
Technically, Spaulding said the team has done its best over the past several months to eliminate any stuck fuel leaks. A pair of countdown tests earlier this year prompted repairs to leaky valves and other faulty equipment; Engineers won’t know if all the repairs are in order until a few hours before the planned takeoff. If it isn’t finished on Monday, the next launch attempt will be on Friday.
After many years of delays and setbacks, the launch team was thrilled to finally get close to the inaugural flight of the Artemis lunar exploration program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.
“We’re within 24 hours of launch right now, which is pretty impressive for what we’ve been on this flight,” Spaulding told reporters.
Artemis’ subsequent flight, early in 2024, will see four astronauts fly around the moon. A landing could follow in 2025. NASA is targeting the moon’s undiscovered south pole, where permanently shaded craters are believed to contain ice that could be used by future crews.
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