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SpaceX, NASA delay milestone mission over lightning fears

After a day of suspense, SpaceX’s landmark launch to the International Space Station – the first crewed mission to blast off from US soil in almost a decade – was scrubbed Wednesday due to fears of a lightning strike.

With NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley strapped into the Crew Dragon capsule, the launchpad platform retracted and rocket fueling underway, SpaceX made the call to abort.

“Unfortunately, we are not going to launch today,” launch director Mike Taylor said, with about 17 minutes to go until takeoff.

“We had just simply too much electricity in the atmosphere,” NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said later.

“There wasn’t really a lightning storm or anything like that, but there was a concern that if we did launch it could actually trigger lightning,” he added.

This was the case for the Apollo 12 mission, which was struck twice shortly after launch — losing the use of some non-essential instruments but completing its mission nonetheless.

A rocket and its plume ascending through clouds act as conductors and can trigger lightning at lower levels of atmospheric electricity than what is required for natural lighting.

The delay means a wait of at least a few more days for the first crewed launch on an American rocket since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. They will try again on Saturday.

If successful, the launch will be the first time the feat has been performed by a privately owned company.

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A live video feed showed Behnken and Hurley — in their futuristic white uniforms adorned with the US flag and the logos of NASA and SpaceX – waiting as propellant was unloaded from the reusable Falcon 9 rocket after the launch was postponed.

The emergency ejection system remained armed until the fuel tanks were emptied, in case of an accidental explosion.

The launch had been scheduled for 4:33 pm (2033 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A. Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crewmates lifted off from the same spot on their historic journey to the Moon.

The mission comes despite shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with the crew in quarantine for the past two weeks.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump had arrived in Florida to watch but headed back to the White House once the launch was called off.

(AFP)

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