Photo by Bill Ingalls / NASA
Hurricane Dorian is slowly making its way toward the eastern coast of Florida, prompting NASA’s premier spaceport, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), to prep for the coming storm. Employees at the spaceport are used to bracing for hurricanes, and they have already started moving some key hardware to safety before Dorian arrives.
Right now, the more than 8,000 employees at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral are operating under an internal status known as HURCON IV, which means that the area expects to experience hurricane-level winds exceeding 75 miles per hour within the next three days. Dorian is predicted to hit the Florida coast on Monday, September 2nd, possibly as a Category 4 storm with winds exceeding 140 miles per hour. That would make it the most powerful storm to hit the east coast of Florida since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
In the wake of Andrew’s trail of destruction through Florida, people at KSC decided that any building built after that storm would be constructed to withstand winds between 130 and 135 miles per hour. Other, older, buildings are also storm-ready. The large, iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) that’s used to store the center’s biggest spacecraft should be able to withstand wind gusts of 125 miles per hour. While that’s a threshold below Dorian’s expected high wind speeds, KSC isn’t too worried about the VAB’s integrity just yet. “It’s a solid steel cage with aluminum siding,” Derrol Nail, a communications representative at NASA’s KSC, tells The Verge. “There are 8,000 tons of steel inside this building, so yes it can withstand a lot.”
“we’ve decided the forecast is such that we need to protect it.”
This morning, the center started the long process of moving what is known as the mobile launch platform inside the VAB to ride out the storm. The platform is a $650 million tower structure needed to launch the future monster rocket called the Space Launch System that NASA is developing. Before the storm became a threat, the 400-foot tower had been out on its future launchpad, 39B, in order to undergo some tests. “Certainly, now we’ve decided the forecast is such that we need to protect it,” says Nail.
Some one-of-a-kind #Artemis hardware is on its way from Pad 39B to the Vehicle Assembly Building for safe keeping in the event of an impact from #HurricaneDorian ⛈: https://t.co/jz4sStiFH0 pic.twitter.com/0mc8oQZP18— NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (@NASAKennedy) August 30, 2019
The mobile launcher is fairly heavy, and the only way it can move around is on top of a very slow crawler-transporter — the same movable platform that carried the Space Shuttle and the Saturn V rockets from the VAB to the launchpad. It takes eight hours to carry the mobile launch platform between those locations, so NASA sent the crawler-transporter out to the pad on August 28th to start bringing back the tower earlier today.
Once that platform is cleared away, all that’s left at 39B are some tanks and a large concrete mound, which NASA isn’t too worried about. Other launchpads, however, have some fixed structures and towers that will have to ride out the storm. The other notable pad at KSC is 39A, which is currently leased by SpaceX and sports a large dark tower used to support launches of the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. “It is a very hardy structure,” says Nail. “You can imagine if it can handle 5.6 million pounds of thrust from the Falcon Heavy rocket, it should be able to handle a hurricane.”
“we are closely monitoring weather conditions and planning to take all necessary precautions.”
SpaceX also has a pad at the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which has fixed structures, too. And the company is currently building a test version of its next-generation rocket outside in Cape Canaveral. Pictures of the site show the vehicle still sitting outside, though it’s near a hangar where it could potentially move. The company says it is prepping for the storm. “In coordination with our partners at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, we are closely monitoring weather conditions and planning to take all necessary precautions to protect our employees and safeguard facilities in the potentially affected areas,” SpaceX said in a statement to The Verge.
In the meantime, other types of preparations are underway at KSC. Employees are gassing up government vehicles, moving objects around to secure locations, and figuring out which windows need to be shuttered for the storm. All of these preparations need to mostly be done before 6PM ET on Saturday, August 31st, when KSC will shut down. “It is a holiday weekend, so we’re getting preps done early in this case,” says Nail.
While most employees will not be allowed on-site, a small “ride out” team of 100 to 120 people will remain at the center throughout the weekend and Monday to monitor the storm. During the storm, the ride out team stays in KSC’s Launch Control Center, which is where engineering teams monitor launches out of the Cape. “This is where we launch rockets, so you know it’s a hardy facility,” says Nail. “It’s rated for a Category 5 hurricane.” Once the storm passes, additional teams are put together to go on a tour of KSC and assess the damage. After that inspection process, NASA will decide when it’s best to reopen the center.
It’s still unclear exactly how much force Dorian will unleash on KSC, if any. The last big storm KSC had to prep for was Hurricane Irma, which prompted the center to shut down for a week. Ultimately, that storm didn’t cause significant damage to the site’s facilities, but its winds also didn’t exceed 130 miles per hour at the area. Dorian has the potential to be a very intense storm for Florida, but Nail is optimistic that KSC employees can secure the facility — as they’ve done many times before. “We have great confidence in the facilities out here,” he says. “We’ve weathered a number of storms and close calls.”