Weather pushes back shuttle launch

NASA on Saturday pushed Atlantis’ launch back 24 hours, to 4:04 p.m. Monday. Liftoff had been set for 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

Published August 26, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL — It might be the most powerful lightning strike to ever come crashing down onto a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, NASA officials say.

The lightning hit launch pad 39B about 2 p.m. Friday as space shuttle Atlantis sat vertical and docked, days before its scheduled liftoff to restart construction of the international space station.

It’s just one of several weather-related worries that spurred NASA on Saturday to push Atlantis’ launch back 24 hours, to 4:04 p.m. Monday. Liftoff had been set for 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

About 100,000 amps of electrical current struck the launch pad, according to officials, but they say the lightning protection system shielded the shuttle and pad. Still, the mission management team decided it needed more time to gather and analyze data to make sure the strike didn’t damage anything.

“The system did its job,” said launch integration manager LeRoy Cain. “However, we did see a couple of indications that make us want to go look at the ground systems and the flight systems of the vehicle to make sure we don’t have any problems before we go fly.”

Another factor: More thundershowers and lightning have been forecast for today, and that increased the chances to 60 percent that bad weather could scrub the launch.

The chance weather could scratch a Monday launch remains at 20 percent.

And officials are keeping a close eye on Tropical Storm Ernesto. If the launch goes off as planned, and Ernesto then becomes a hurricane and threatens Mission Control in Houston, NASA might have to abort the mission altogether and order Atlantis down from orbit.

As officials played a video recording of the bolt striking the 4-foot lightning rod atop the 80-foot fiberglass mast that towers over the orbiter, thunder continued to boom outside. Dark clouds rolled over Atlantis again Saturday afternoon, and officials ordered anyone outside the launch facilities to take cover because of more lightning.

“From Tampa to Titusville, we call that lightning alley,” said Air Force First Lt. Kaleb Nordgren of the 45th Weather Squadron.

The lightning strike has engineers double checking two systems for damage: an explosive pyrotechnic device on the gantry that would separate a hydrogen vent arm from the fuel tank during launch, and an electrical bus in the shuttle itself, which lets devices share power.

Atlantis’ commander, Navy Capt. Brent Jett, and his five crewmates have spent four years preparing for what the space agency is calling one of its most difficult missions ever: installing and deploying a 35,000-pound truss of solar arrays that will boost the space station’s power.

The astronauts will need Mission Control at Houston’s Johnson Space Center to complete their tasks. Last year Hurricane Rita forced Russian controllers to take over monitoring the space station while Houston braced for the storm, but there was no shuttle in orbit.

If Ernesto were to shutter Mission Control after the launch, NASA officials said they might have to call off the mission and order Atlantis to land.