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NASA Checks Shuttle After Lightning Strike Near Launch Pad

Space Shuttle Atlantis on Launch Pad 39A
Space shuttle Atlantis is revealed at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A following retraction of the pad's Rotating Service Structure on July 7. (Image credit: NASA/Troy Cryder)

This story was updated at 6:46 p.m. EDT.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA checked the shuttle Atlantis for any damage from two lightning strikes within a mile of the spacecraft today (July 7), just one day before the agency's last space shuttle launch ever, agency officials said.

The midday lightning strikes touched down within one-third of a mile of Atlantis, which is perched atop Launch Pad 39A for NASA's final shuttle launch on Friday. The shuttle is slated to launch tomorrow at 11:26 a.m. EDT (1526 GMT), but only if weather allows and the vehicle is undamaged by lightning.

"Right now there's no obvious damage," NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel told reporters.

A team of engineers inspected Atlantis and its launch pad ground systems to make sure both were unharmed by the nearby lightning, Beutel said. Sensors did not show any power spikes that would suggest a major hit, he added. [Photos: NASA Prepares for Final Shuttle Flight]

The lightning strikes occurred at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT) and 12:40 p.m. EDT (1640 GMT). The first strike hit about 515 feet (157 meters) from Atlantis atop its pad. The second lightning bolt hit a beach northeast of the launch pad.

A pair of lightning strikes occurred near the space shuttle Atlantis on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on July 7. The first struck the water tower 515 feet from the pad and the second struck the beach area northeast of the pad. Early data indicate no issues with the shuttle or its systems. Credit: NASA (Image credit: NASA)

Atlantis is poised to launch NASA's final space shuttle mission, a delivery flight to the International Space Station. But the agency has been fighting a battle with dismal weather. Forecasts currently predict a 70 percent chance that thunderstorms, lightning and clouds will delay tomorrow's launch try.

Bad weather delayed work today to roll back a shroud-like structure that protects Atlantis from severe weather at the launch pad. More storms are expected for the next day.

"We're going to be dodging storms for the next 24 hours," Beutel said.

Florida, in fact, is the most lightning-prone state in America.

NASA's final shuttle mission is a 12-day mission to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. It will be the 33rd launch of Atlantis and 135th mission for NASA's 30-year shuttle program.

NASA is retiring its shuttle fleet after three decades to make way for a new program aimed at deep space exploration of asteroids and Mars. After Atlantis completes its last voyage, the shuttle and its sister ships Discovery and Endeavour will spend their final days on display at museums.

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.