CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – NASA’s new moon rocket stayed on track to fire on a crucial test flight Monday, despite a series of lightning strikes on the launch pad.
The 98-meter-long Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful ever built by NASA. It’s ready to send an empty crew pod into orbit around the moon, half a century after NASA’s Apollo program, which landed 12 astronauts on the moon.
Astronauts could return to the moon in a few years, if this six-week test flight goes well. However, NASA officials warn that the risks are high and the flight could be cut short.
Instead of astronauts, three test dummies will be strapped into the Orion capsule to measure vibration, acceleration and radiation, one of the greatest dangers to humans in deep space. The capsule alone has more than 1,000 sensors.
Officials said on Sunday that neither the missile nor the capsule sustained any damage during Saturday’s thunderstorm; ground equipment was also unaffected. Five attacks were confirmed, hitting the 183-meter-tall lightning protection towers surrounding the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The strikes were not strong enough to warrant a major retest.
“Clearly, the system worked the way it was designed,” said Jeff Spaulding, NASA’s senior director of testing.
More storms were expected. Although forecasters indicated an 80% 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 its best in recent months to eliminate any lingering fuel leaks. A few countdown tests earlier this year resulted in repairs to leaking valves and other faulty equipment; engineers won’t know if all the repairs are good until a few hours before the scheduled launch. If Monday fails, the next launch attempt will be Friday.
After so many years of delays and setbacks, the launch team was delighted to finally be so close to the inaugural flight of the Artemis lunar exploration program, named after Apollo’s twin sister 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.
Artemis’ follow-up flight, as early as 2024, would see four astronauts fly around the moon. A landing could follow in 2025. NASA is targeting the moon’s unexplored south pole, which is believed to contain permanently shadowed craters of ice that could be used by future crews.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.