- Associated Press - Thursday, July 7, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. (AP) - Rain in the forecast threatened to delay the last space shuttle launch, set for Friday, and a lightning strike near the pad briefly caused a flurry of concern at NASA before engineers concluded the spaceship was OK.

The lightning bolt hit a water tower about 500 feet from the launch pad at midday Thursday, the space agency said. Technicians hurried out to check for electrical problems, but a review board ruled out any damage.

Over the years, lightning has struck on or near the launch pad occasionally, delaying a few launches but causing no damage.

The forecast for Friday, meanwhile, looked dismal, with only a 30 chance of acceptable weather at launch time, 11:26 a.m.

NASA test director Jeff Spaulding pointed out that space shuttles have managed to launch with worse forecasts.

“There’s some opportunity there,” he said Thursday as the rain set in. “It’s a really tough day if you make a decision not to go and it turns out to be good weather.”

NASA is closing out its 30-year space shuttle program to take aim at asteroids and Mars, destinations favored by the White House. Private companies will take over the job of hauling cargo and crews to the International Space Station, freeing NASA up to focus on points beyond.

“We believe that on behalf of the American people, it is time for NASA to do the hard things to go beyond low-Earth orbit,” NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver, told reporters gathering for the launch.

The odds of good flying weather improve with each passing day, said shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters. The launch time moves slightly earlier every day, and that helps, she said.

NASA has until Sunday, possibly Monday, to get Atlantis and its four astronauts in orbit. Otherwise, the spacecraft will remain grounded until the following weekend because of an Air Force rocket launch that takes priority.

Rain or shine, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to jam the area for the launch. Some estimates put the crowd at close to 1 million. Dozens of astronauts already are in town, including the very first shuttle pilot Robert Crippen, who opened the era aboard Columbia in 1981.

“It’s a sad time for me obviously. But it’s also a time when I feel pride. I’m proud of what the shuttle has done,” Crippen told The Associated Press. “You’ve got to get it back down on the ground safely. So when we finally get `wheels stop,’ it will be an emotional moment for me.”

The commander of that original shuttle shot, moonwalker John Young, opted to stay home in Houston. He didn’t want to deal with all the fuss, Crippen explained. “It’s not his kind of thing,” he said. “He’ll watch it on TV,” he said.

Along one of the main roads leading into Kennedy Space Center, businesses and even churches joined in the celebration with billboards pronouncing “God Bless Atlantis July 8” and “Godspeed Atlantis and Crew.”

The countdown, at least, was going well, with only a few minor technical problems at the pad reported.

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