West News Wire: Despite several lightning strikes at the launch pad, NASA’s new moon rocket was still scheduled to launch on a critical test flight on Monday.

The Space Launch System rocket, measuring 322 feet (98 meters), is NASA’s most potent creation to date. A half-century after NASA’s Apollo mission, which put 12 humans on the moon, it is prepared to launch an empty crew capsule into lunar orbit.

If this six-week test voyage is successful, astronauts could visit the moon again in a few years. However, NASA officials issue a warning that the risks are great and that the trip may be aborted.

Three test dummies are strapped into the Orion capsule in place of astronauts to assess vibration, acceleration, and radiation, one of the greatest risks to humans in space. The capsule alone has more than 1,000 sensors.

Officials said Sunday that neither the rocket nor capsule suffered any damage during Saturday’s thunderstorm; ground equipment also was unaffected. Five lightning strikes were confirmed, hitting the 600-foot towers surrounding the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The strikes weren’t strong enough to warrant major retesting.

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

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

On the technical side, Spaulding said the team did its best over the past several months to eliminate any lingering fuel leaks. A pair of countdown tests earlier this year prompted repairs to leaking valves and other faulty equipment; engineers won’t know if all the fixes are good until just a few hours before the planned liftoff.

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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 Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.

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

The follow-on Artemis flight, as early as 2024, would see four astronauts flying around the moon. A landing could follow in 2025. NASA is targeting the moon’s unexplored south pole, where permanently shadowed craters are believed to hold ice that could be used by future crews.

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