Hurricane Headed for Space Center

If the shuttle fleet were damaged, would the United States rebuild?

3 September 2004--With Hurricane Frances barreling toward Florida, fears are growing for the fate of the Kennedy Space Center. The center is the sole launch facility for the United States' human spaceflight program and is located at Cape Canaveral, about 100 kilometers north of where the U.S. National Hurricane Center predicts Frances will make landfall in the small hours of Sunday morning. If Frances does serious damage to the space center and its shuttle fleet there could be long-lasting consequences for the United States' human spaceflight plans, possibly including a years'-long hiatus in the country's ability to put people in orbit.

Most at risk is the Center's cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), constructed during the Apollo era and currently used to combine the components of the space shuttle--the orbiter, fuel tank, and two solid-fuel booster rockets--prior to launch. The 150-meter tall boxlike structure was designed to withstand gusts of 200 kilometers per hour and sustained winds of 183 km/hour. While Frances's maximum wind speeds have fallen in the past day from a peak of 230 km/hour to 193 km/hour, meteorologists warn that the storm's intensity is likely to increase before landfall. What's worse, the VAB is suffering from the effects of age and neglect: last year's report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board noted that NASA had to install netting inside the VAB to prevent falling roof debris from damaging shuttles.

Because of the lengthy grounding of the shuttle fleet due to the Columbia disaster, no shuttle orbiters are currently in the VAB. They are located instead at the Orbiter Processing Facilities, a group of buildings nearby. Although these facilities are low structures compared with the VAB, they have been designed to withstand only winds of up to 170 km/hour, raising the specter that one or more orbiters could be damaged, possibly finishing off the shuttle program. "If there were serious damage to one or two of the orbiters or the facilities needed to process and launch the orbiters, I think it would raise a very large question about the continuation of the shuttle program," John Logsdon, a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and the head of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C, told The Discovery Channel on Wednesday. Since NASA is already planning to decommission the three remaining shuttles and replace them with the new Crew Exploration Vehicle, rebuilding shuttle hardware may not be worth the cost and effort. The first crewed flight of the new vehicle is scheduled for 2014, raising the possibility of the longest hiatus between U.S. crewed flights in the history of NASA.

In addition to the orbiters, many yet-to-be-launched segments of the International Space Station are housed at Kennedy Space Center, in a warehouse designed for wind speeds of up to 180 km/hour. NASA workers have spent the past few days attempting to prepare the center and covering hardware with plastic and tarps. Fear of flooding has prompted NASA to lay sandbags around building entrances and raise spaceflight and smaller equipment off the ground. Most of the nearly 14 000 workers have already been sent home, leaving only a skeleton crew behind.

Although hurricanes were a known risk when NASA originally chose Cape Canaveral as its primary launch site, the weather has been kind to the Kennedy Space Center over the years and, although there have been some near misses, the center has dodged a direct hit so far. Sunday will tell if its lucky streak continues.

The National Hurricane Center is keeping an up-to-date map of its storm track predictions at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/.

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