The SLS countdown begins for the Artemis Moon launch on Monday

Despite five lightning “events” on Saturday at pad 39B, engineers were cleared to continue preparations on Sunday for scheduled launch of NASA’s Space Launch System’s massive rocket Monday on a critical flight to send an unmanned Orion capsule to trip around the moon.

Engineers spent the day Sunday preparing the rocket, the most powerful NASA has ever built, to begin fueling shortly after midnight, when 750,000 gallons of supercooled liquid oxygen and hydrogen rocket fuel will be pumped into the 322-foot-tall SLS.

If all goes well, the four legacy transport engines at the base of the SLS core, along with two strap-on solid rocket boosters, will ignite at 8:33 AM. EDT, pushing the 5.75 million-pound rocket away from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

The Space Launch System rocket at top pad 39B on Sunday morning, awaiting blastoff at 8:33 am.  EDT on Monday on the Artemis 1 mission to the moon.  / Credit: CBS News

The Space Launch System rocket at top pad 39B on Sunday morning, awaiting blastoff at 8:33 am. EDT on Monday on the Artemis 1 mission to the moon. / Credit: CBS News

Forecasters predicted an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather at the opening of the two-hour launch window, dropping to about 60 percent later in the morning.

While the primary goal of the 42-day mission is to test the Orion capsule’s heat shield at the end of the flight, the SLS booster must send the spacecraft on its way, boosting it into Earth orbit and then sending it into a five-orbit day to the moon.

Preparing the Space Launch System rocket for its maiden flight was difficult, with a series of ground system problems and propellant leaks causing multiple delays. But engineers say the complex rocket is finally ready to launch.

“Our team right now is extremely excited and we’re prepared for anything (that comes our way),” said NASA test manager Jeff Spaulding. “The four (practice countdowns) that we’ve done in the past have really, I think, prepared us for where we are now.

“We’re excited. The vehicle will be ready. It’s ready right now, it looks great to move forward with this inaugural launch of the Artemis program.”

One question mark remains for the final hours of the countdown: the status of a 4-inch liquid hydrogen quick-disconnect fitting that leaked during the most recent fueling test on June 20.

Engineers repaired the component, but the work was done at room temperature, and they won’t know for sure there isn’t a leak until supercooled liquid hydrogen starts flowing through it starting around 3:30 am. Another test at 5:43 am. will subject the plumbing to higher pressures as a final check.

An unrelated issue emerged Saturday hours after the countdown began, when storms rolled into Cape Canaveral and lightning struck two of the three 600-foot-tall towers protecting pad 39B.

Spaulding said Sunday that five electrical “events” from multiple hits were detected by launch pad sensors, prompting a check of the missile’s electrical systems to make sure nothing was actually affected.

“We’ve been evaluating these since yesterday and last night, and everything so far … looks pretty good,” Spaulding said. “We have a threshold that we’re looking at to see what the size of these bumps are. And we didn’t meet that criteria to have to do intensive or invasive re-do.”

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