What Has Frances done to NASA Kennedy Space Center - and its Employees?


Latest information on Frances and KSC

While Hurricane Frances continues to pummel Florida, NASA is preparing to assess what as happened to Kennedy Space Center - and to the people who work there.

Last week, in preparation for the arrival of Frances, NASA made an unprecedented move to assure the safety of its employees by evacuating everyone from the center. Normally, a skeleton crew is left in place to monitor major storm damage. This time, the threat of significant wind and water damage was far too great to allow people to remain onsite.

As such, no one knows exactly what has - or has not - happened to the nation's space launch facility.

Some indication of the type of damage that may be found was reported by AP on Sunday: "a Mercury-Redstone rocket that once stood upright at the credentialing center at the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Fla. lies on the grass after being blown down by Hurricane Frances." [Image]

According to NASA sources, the agency will not be sending anyone into survey the center until Monday morning. As of Sunday the general (but unconfirmed) view is that major structures and facilities will still be in place.

Conditions in the space center area in the past 24 hours included hurricane force winds, flying debris, and rainfall which may eventually amount to between 8 and 20 inches. Winds recorded at Port Canaveral exceeded 120 mph according to Spaceflightnow.com.

Given its seaside location, there has been some concern that a direct - or near direct hit by a powerful hurricane could cause significant damage. These fears have been heightened among some due to the deteriorating nature of some of the Apollo era structures.

According to excerpts from a September 1999 press release titled "NASA Prepares For Hurricane Floyd": "KSC's elevation is approximately nine feet, so we are concerned about both wind damage and water intrusion in the event of a storm surge. The Orbiter Processing Facility is constructed of concrete and steel and was designed to withstand winds of 105 mph. The Vehicle Assembly Building is constructed of concrete and steel and was designed to withstand winds of 125 mph. Other payload and flight hardware support facilities can endure winds of 110 mph. Launch pads and the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility can withstand 125-mph winds."

It would seem that winds did not reach the design limits of major structures. However, substantial amounts of rain and the sustained nature of Frances' slow motion march across Florida present a very clear threat.

While the physical assets of KSC are of concern to the agency, NASA's major concern is for the health and safety of its employees. While NASA may learn that the space center is intact in the next 24 hours, NASA will not begin to learn how its workforce fared until Tuesday - at the earliest.

Many KSC employees live in Brevard County and surrounding regions - all of which are without power and have sustained serious damage from the storm.

To keep up to date on what is known, NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance has been in telephone contact with Mike Stevens, NASA KSC's Emergency Preparedness Official. Stevens is currently located at the Brevard County Emergency Operations Center.

Stevens has reported that tropical storm winds are not expected to subside to less than 40 mph at KSC until after 10:00 pm EDT on Sunday. High winds currently prevent anyone from safely traversing the causeways needed to reach KSC since winds must be less than 40 mph before anyone is allowed to drive on the causeways.

As such, current plans call for a survey team to return to KSC around 7:00 AM EDT on Monday, 6 September. The hope is that they can provide an initial damage assessment by noon on Monday. NASA is not expected to make any official announcements until that assessment has been made.

Meanwhile, state officials are cautioning residents to resist the temptation to pull off plywood given that hurricane Ivan is stirring to life in a rather ominous way in the Caribbean.

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