Numerous launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and Cape Canaveral avoided serious impact from Category 3 hurricane Matthew. The facilities were evacuated of personnel apart from a brave rideout crew team holding station at the famous launch center. Although the storm passed east of the Cape, some damage has been observed during the initial inspections over the weekend.
Arriving from the south, this hugely dangerous hurricane forced the evacuation of large parts of south and east Florida. It has already killed several hundred people in Haiti alone as it proceeded along its track. As of Sunday, authorities noted ten lives were lost during its pass along the east coast of the United States.
As such, the concern – as always – is to avoid loss of life wherever possible. From a launch facility standpoint, damaged equipment can be replaced. As of Friday morning, the eyewall of the storm passed East of the Cape, with winds less than predicted, albeit still dangerously high.
Friday morning’s first update from NASA also appeared to portray a situation that was not as bad as feared.
“Hurricane Matthew is passing Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center with sustained winds of 90 mph with gusts to 107. There are no reports of significant damage so far, mostly power outages around different parts of the space center.
“The storm is expected to have passed the space center by 10:30 a.m. EDT. Tropical storm force winds are expected to continue until about 9:30 p.m. EDT.”
KSC works under the HURCON (Hurricane Condition) alert system, ranging from HURCON IV “72 hours prior to forecasted arrival of 50 knot / 58 mph sustained winds” through to III, II – when all non-essential personnel released from duty – and then HURCON I.
With KSC under the HURCON I alert, a Rideout Crew was staged at the facility. Per HURCON documentation, the crew was located inside the Launch Control Center (LCC).
“The hurricane ride-out crew at Kennedy Space Center team is beginning its report to stations to prepare for Hurricane Matthew,” added NASA on Thursday.
“The number of ride out crew members has been adjusted slightly to 116. All facilities at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station have been secured.”
The iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is the focal point of KSC and has stood firm against the force of hurricane strength winds over its history.
Per a report on Saturday, the VAB is in good shape after the storm cleared.
The huge building suffered damage via two hurricanes in 2004 (Frances and Jeanne). However, neither storm caused critical damage, proving the strength of the structure that was originally built to assemble the Saturn V moon rocket.
Notably, during the Shuttle era it was classed as a safe haven area for “stacked” orbiters that required shelter during a hurricane, in the event they were outside of their Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs).
“KSC has the responsibility to provide a ‘Safe Haven’ for the flight hardware,” noted a document from the latter part of the Shuttle Program (L2). “All KSC hurricane planning has flight hardware protected prior to the arrival of 40 knot steady state winds (with 4 hours contingency).
“SSV (Space Shuttle Vehicle) Safe Haven is VAB High Bays 1, 2 and 3. High Bays 1 and 3 are the preferred locations. Preferred configuration in VAB HB-2 during a hurricane is a stack without an orbiter. This will prevent an SSV from being ‘trapped’ without access after the hurricane.”
Post-Shuttle, only one orbiter still resides on the Space Coast, with Shuttle Atlantis currently in her retirement home at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center (KSCVC).
The center confirmed the orbiter was protected by her recently built facility.
“The Space Shuttle Atlantis building was designed to withstand hurricanes. She’ll be fine,” noted the Center in a response to NASASpaceFlight.com.
The associated Rocket Garden apparently dealt with Matthew’s winds without too much issue.
Both of KSC’s pads, 39A and 39B will – in tandem with the high winds and gusts – have been under threat from the storm surge generated by Matthew, due to their beachfront location.
LC-39B is now a clean pad, in preparation to host the Space Launch System (SLS), and is currently having its Flame Trench walls renewed to cope with the thrust of the big rocket.
Normally – per Shuttle-era documentation – KSC would provide partial protection the trench with a Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) parked on the pad.
With the MLPs now out of action, this won’t have been an option for hurricane Matthew.
Notably, SLS’ own Mobile Launcher (ML) is out in the open near the VAB.
LC-39A is now under the control of SpaceX and was in the midst of final preparations for the hosting of its first Falcon 9 rocket as early as next month.
That work is currently on hold while the facility is under the HURCON I (and II) alert.
The new Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) will have been constructed with strength in mind, not least due to its location near the launch pad that will also host the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket by the middle of next year.
Up to three previously launched Falcon 9 boosters are currently inside the 39A HIF.
As with the KSC pads, the Cape pads are also vacant of launch vehicles. However, there are two satellites in processing for upcoming missions.
The Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS GEO-3) military spacecraft is being processing at a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) facility at the Cape, but is understood to be well protected.
“SBIRS GEO-3 in secure location capable of sustaining hurricane 4 conditions,” noted the SMC Commander. “Will assess spacecraft & assume operations ASAP. Team evacuated.”
The next generation weather satellite, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-R) arrived at the Space Coast in August and is currently bunkered down in her facility at Astrotech.
Early reports on Friday note the satellite is safe.
Ironically, GOES-R will be an additional asset to evaluate hurricanes once operational in space.
This new satellite has an important role in advancing NOAA’s meteorological assists, providing higher-resolution images of weather patterns and severe storms five times faster than is currently available, which will contribute to more accurate and reliable weather forecasts and severe weather outlooks.
GOES-R products will improve hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts, and increase thunderstorm and tornado warning lead time.
Both United Launch Alliance (ULA) pads at Cape Canaveral – SLC-41 and SLC-37 – endured the hurricane, without any major impact.
ULA CEO Tory Bruno noted via a tweet on Saturday: “Got in today to assess. Light to moderate damage to our facilities. No damage to any flight assets.”
SpaceX’s SLC-40 is nearby the Cape and was undergoing initial assessment and repairs following the explosion during the Static Fire test for the Falcon 9 launch of the Amos-6 satellite.
Both the rocket and payload were lost during the failure, while the pad suffered damage, most notably to the TEL that was hosting the Falcon 9.
The erector was being taken down via the aid of cranes at the pad during recent days and work will have understandably been ceased ahead of the hurricane’s arrival.
The large lightning protection system towers at all of the Cape Pads were exposed to Matthew’s winds, but are – as with large elements of Cape structures – designed with such conditions in mind.
The only notable damage observed on the Cape pad assets is the SpaceX processing facility , which is the former Titan IV SMAB (Solid Motor Assembly Building).
This facility includes a Satellite Processing and Integration Facility (SPIF) for SpaceX, although it is not known if the damage included that area of the SMAB. No payloads were understood to be inside the facility when the hurricane passed.
Another SpaceX asset, the now-famous Drone Ship “Of Course I Still Love You” will also ride out the storm in Port Canaveral. Webcam viewers spotted the SpaceX fleet at the Port early on Friday and noted they were coping well with the storm.
On Saturday, NASA noted that after the initial inspection flyover, it was determined that the center received some isolated roof damage, damaged support buildings, a few downed power lines, and limited water intrusion.
“Since safety is our utmost concern, teams of inspectors are going from building-to-building assessing damage,” added the update.
“Due to the complexity of this effort, teams need time to thoroughly inspect all buildings and roads prior to opening the Kennedy Space Center for regular business operations.
“Not until after a full inspection of the center will a list of damaged buildings and equipment be available. The next update will be available no earlier than Sunday afternoon.”
(Images: NASA, Lockheed Martin, KSCVC, SpaceX, and L2 (Derrick Stamos, Marek Cyzio)