NASA’s new moon rocket remained on track for liftoff in a crucial test flight on Monday, despite a series of lightning strikes on the launch pad.
The 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful NASA has ever built. It is about to send an empty crew capsule into lunar orbit, 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. NASA officials warn, however, that the risks are high and the flight could be cut short.
Instead of astronauts, three test dummies are attached to 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 Sunday that neither the rocket nor the capsule sustained damage in Saturday’s thunderstorm; ground equipment was also unaffected. Five strikes were confirmed, hitting the 600-foot (183-meter) lightning protection towers surrounding the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The strikes weren’t strong enough to warrant a major retest.
“Obviously the system worked as expected,” said NASA senior test manager Jeff Spaulding.
More thunderstorms were expected. Although forecasters gave an 80% chance of acceptable weather Monday morning, conditions are expected to deteriorate during the two-hour launch window.
On the technical side, Spaulding said the team had done its best over the past few months to eliminate any lingering fuel leaks. A pair of countdown tests earlier this year resulted in repairs to leaky valves and other faulty equipment; engineers won’t know if all the fixes are good until just hours before the scheduled liftoff. If Monday doesn’t happen, the next launch attempt will be on Friday.
After so many years of delays and setbacks, the launch team was thrilled to finally be so close to the maiden flight of the Artemis lunar exploration program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.
“We’re less than 24 hours away from launch right now, which is pretty amazing considering where we’ve been on this trip,” Spaulding told reporters.
The Artemis follow-on 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 uncharted south pole, where permanently shadowed craters are thought to contain ice that could be used by future crews.