Educator Features

Lightning and Launches
04.22.04
Picture of lightning strikes during a storm
Weather is the greatest cause of Space Shuttle launch delays. Sometimes a few clouds or light rain can delay a launch. NASA is very safe when considering launch conditions.

Image to right: Thunder and lightning can cause delays in launch schedules
Credit: NASA


Lightning striking the Shuttle could cause many problems. The electronic equipment on board could shut down. The Shuttle could lose control and crash. This means that a thunderstorm is dangerous for a launch.

What about just a cloudy day? The risk of lightning still exists. It's a different type of lightning.

The Space Shuttle can trigger lightning while passing through these clouds. This actually happened in 1969 with the Apollo 12 launch. The spacecraft triggered two lightning strikes. There was no natural lightning present. The backup systems allowed the flight to continue safely.

NASA looks at the thickness of clouds. This helps NASA determine if lightning could be triggered.

Precipitation is also dangerous to the Shuttle. The Shuttle is covered with tiles. The tiles protect the Shuttle during temperature changes. If the tiles get wet during a launch, they could buckle in the freezing temperatures of space. This could cause them to break up under high heat during the return to Earth.

Preventing delays is important. NASA is learning more about clouds and lightning. This will help them become better at predicting bad weather and launching with fewer delays.

Lesson Links

Types Of Clouds
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Lightning Charge
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Wash Out
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Wind In Your Socks
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Published by NASAexplores
Marshall Space Flight Center