Lightning Strike Delays Shuttle Mission

An electrical storm prompts NASA to delay Sunday's planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. Ironically, once the shuttle does take off, its main mission will be to provide the international space station with more electrical power.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliot.

NASA has delayed tomorrow's scheduled launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. It's mission is to restart construction of the International Space Station, but yesterday the launch pad was struck by a powerful bolt of lightning. So today NASA's engineers said they're putting off the launch. NPR's Nell Boyce is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Hello, Nell, what happened?

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Well, the shuttle was sitting out on the launch pad waiting for the scheduled launch on Sunday when a severe thunderstorm rolled over it on Friday afternoon. And during that storm, the launch pad was hit by a big bolt of lightning. NASA officials are saying that this was the biggest bolt of lightning ever to hit the launch pad. They described it as being 100,000 amps.

Someone asked them, well, how powerful is that in terms of things that everyday people understand? And one official said, well, he didn't know, just that it was really, really big.

ELLIOTT: Was the shuttle itself hit?

BOYCE: No, it wasn't, because NASA is prepared for the threat of lightning. On the launch pad, the shuttle is sitting very tall, several stories high, and it's basically sitting isolated on a beach in Florida, which is a place known as the lightning capital of the United States. The launch pads here get hit about five times a year, and the launch pads have a system of wires and rods that will protect the shuttle from a direct strike, and that system is what got hit, not the shuttle.

ELLIOTT: Why are they worried that something might be wrong? Why the delay?

BOYCE: Well, after a strike like this, they always go back and check all of their systems to make sure that nothing was actually hit or disturbed. As they began to look at the systems of the shuttle and the ground equipment, they got two small indications of problems. But they don't actually have that much information.

Technicians who are walking around on the pad doing inspections said that in one place they smelled a kind of charred or burned smell, and one flight director said that we know just enough to know that we don't know enough. That's why they want to hold off on launch for at least 24 hours, so they can get some more data.

The only problem is, this whole area is currently in a phase two lightning warning. I don't know if you can hear behind me: occasionally there's this big thunderous roar, and we keep hearing announcements to go inside. So in this kind of situation it's very hard for them to go back out to the launch pad to inspect it, so that may mean more delays.

ELLIOTT: Do they think they'll be able to try for a launch on Monday?

BOYCE: They just don't know. They need to get more data. If they're going to need to do some repairs, it would depend on what kind of repairs they needed to do. Some parts of the shuttle are more accessible than others.

If it turns out that there's not really a problem, then they can try on Monday. And actually the weather for Monday is looking pretty good, better than it would have been on Sunday.

ELLIOTT: Now, how does this affect the mission for this shuttle flight?

BOYCE: Well, unless something's been damaged, which they don't seem to think there's any indication that there has been, it shouldn't really affect the mission because they have several more days they can try to launch. This mission is going up to the international space station to bring some equipment and resume construction. They can just keep trying until about mid-September.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Nell Boyce at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Thank you.

BOYCE: Thank you.

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