10 September 2004--Kennedy Space Center is picking up the pieces after the worst storm the Florida flagship launch facility has ever experienced, even as another storm is set to hit the state on Monday. Fears mounted last weekend that Hurricane Frances would make landfall close enough and at a high enough intensity to destroy many of Kennedy's essential buildings and their expensive contents, such as the three remaining shuttle orbiters and modules for the International Space Station. These buildings, including the signature Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), a 150-meter tall boxlike structure constructed during the Apollo era, were not designed to withstand the winds speeds that come with the most ferocious breeds of hurricane, designated Category 4 and 5 storms.
Luckily, Frances weakened and came ashore farther away from Kennedy Space Center than originally predicted. Still, the damage was considerable. "Our initial feeling is we dodged a real bullet," said center Director James W. Kennedy. "Even though this was the worst storm ever to hit KSC, I feel very fortunate." The space shuttles and other hardware intended for spaceflight appears to have come through unscathed, but the massive VAB lost about 820 side panels. Hardest hit was the facility that manufactures the heat resistant tiles used by space shuttles to survive re-entry. Part of the roof was torn off and a wall badly damaged. NASA is attempting to recover equipment, such as tile molds, from the building. It is not yet know what impact the damage will have on the agency's efforts to return its shuttle fleet to flight. The fleet has been grounded since the February 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia and her crew.
A more powerful storm, Hurricane Ivan, is set to hit Florida on Monday, but it is unclear whether Kennedy will be in its path. NASA is picking up panels ripped off the VAB, so they do not become dangerous projectiles when Ivan arrives.
Although Kennedy's luck in avoiding a direct hit by a hurricane continues to hold, in 2001 the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that the east coast of the United States would see above-average hurricane activity for the next two or three decades. Without funding support from the U.S. federal government for significant renovation and upgrade of NASA's aging and increasingly dilapidated infrastructure, whether or not Kennedy can survive the next twenty years is a bad bet NASA may be forced to make.