KSC, Cape preparing to evaluate damage following Hurricane Irma

by Chris Gebhardt

Less than one year after the Space Center and the entirety of eastern Florida benefited from a last-minute wobble to the east of Major Hurricane Matthew – a wobble that kept the severity of the anticipated destruction offshore – the iconic spaceport and majority of Florida appears to have avoided most of Hurricane Irma’s wrath. The main concern is potential damage from associated tornados.

On the coast, being ever prepared for a hurricane:

Situated on Florida’s East Coast, the direct effect of hurricanes is a well-known and planned for event at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).

Most recently, this was seen last year in October during the approach and grazing of KSC and CCAFS by Major Hurricane Matthew.

While Matthew’s initial centerline track predicted the storm would pass directly over or just barely to the east of KSC and CCAFS, a last-minute wobble to the east in the storm’s position kept the storm several dozen miles off the Cape and eastern Florida – keeping a majority of the anticipated damaging winds forecasted prior to the storm’s arrival away from land.

Prior to Hurricane Matthew, however, the Space Center had not dealt with a direct or near-direct impact of a major hurricane – or indeed, any hurricane – since 2004.

In that year, the state of Florida was impacted by three major hurricanes and one Category 2 hurricane within the span of just 6 weeks, with three of those hurricanes (two major – “major” defined as Cat. 3, 4, or 5) directly affecting KSC and CCAFS.

Between 13 August and 26 September 2004, hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne caused “moderate” to “extensive” damage at KSC and CCAFS, most-visibly to the siding of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) – portions of which were ripped away during the storms’ passages.

The VAB – and three (now former) OPFs – is built to withstand winds of 125 mph (201 km/h), the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane – designated on the Saffir-Simpson scale as a tropical cyclone with winds sustained between 111-129 mph, 178-208 km/h).

Newer buildings at KSC are built to withstand 150 mph winds, the equivalent of a very strong Category 4 hurricane – defined as having sustained winds between 130-156 mph (209-251 km/h).

However, the Space Center as a whole fared quite well through those storms, with all major hardware and the three Space Shuttle Orbiters – Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour – all weathering the storms without issue inside their Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs).

Since the 2004 hurricanes, the spaceport has actively monitored and prepared for much smaller Tropical Storms – most notably Tropical Storm Ernesto, which resulted in the famous half-rollback of Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-115) from LC-39B before Launch Director Mike Leinbach reversed the rollback decision and sent Atlantis back to the pad to ride out the weakening storm as it passed near the Center.

HURCON levels – preparing KSC and CCAFS for the impact of a hurricane:

Overall, preparation for the 2004 hurricanes and last year’s Hurricane Matthew followed the same series of warning levels that the Space Center is now using to prepare for Hurricane Irma.

On Cape Canaveral, the HURCON (Hurricane Condition) system begins with HURCON V.  At the Kennedy Space Center, HURCON levels begin with HURCON IV.

For the CCAFS, HURCON V begins 96 hours (4 days) prior to the arrival of 58 mph (50 knot) sustained winds.

For KSC, HURCON IV, the lowest warning level for KSC, nominally begins 72 hours (3 days) prior to the forecasted arrival of 58 mph sustained winds.

NOTE: CCAFS HURCON IV – I conditions follow the same timeline as KSC’s listed below, with much of the same activities transpiring in each, though the CCAFS also has to protect military defense and Eastern Range support equipment as well.

During HURCON IV, KSC and CCAFS personnel report for work as usual, the Hurricane Management Teams (HMTs) develop storm-specific securing plans and final configuration requirements for vehicles and hardware.

The Emergency Operations Command (EOC) is activated and Site Managers begin cleaning up and securing loose equipment.

HURCON III is initiated 48 hours (2 days) prior to the forecasted arrival of 58 mph sustained winds; non-essential KSC and CCAFS personnel are relieved from normal work and assigned to assist with hurricane preparations throughout the centers as required.

Rideout crew rosters – those who will remain on base in secured areas – are finalized and sent to the EOC.  Rideout crew personnel are then released to go home to prepare their families and houses at this point.

The HMT, under HURCON III, coordinates with various Center users – such as SpaceX, Boeing, ULA, and U.S. Air Force – to secure all vehicles and payloads on KSC and CCAFS property and, depending on the severity of the approaching storm, finalize any payload or vehicle movements that might be needed.

Site Managers, at this time, begin reporting facilities and flight hardware securing status every two hours.

Building HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) units are secured and prepped and all portable high value items susceptible to water damage are moved off first floor locations.

HURCON II is initiated 24 hours (1 day) ahead of the forecasted arrival of 58 mph sustained winds.

Under HURCON II, all non-essential personnel are sent home and the Rideout Crews report back to KSC and CCAFS.

For any vehicles and payloads, HURCON II will see the completion of power down activities and covering with plastic film of sensitive flight equipment.

For SpaceX at LC-39A, this will include ensuring the remaining portion of the RSS (Rotating Service Structure) at Pad-A is secured to hurricane anchors.

HURCON I begins 12 hours out from the arrival of 58 mph sustained winds. KSC entered this condition at 3 PM local time on Saturday.

At this point, the Rideout Crews are staged inside secure facilities.

At KSC, based on the intensity forecasts for Hurricane Irma as the storm passes directly over or near KSC, the Rideout Crew will likely take shelter in the Launch Control Center (LCC) only.

All KSC and CCAFS access gates will be closed at the initiation of HURCON I operations.

A specific note for HURCON I conditions states that “Individuals will refrain from taking unilateral actions unless all communications have been lost and action must be taken for the protection of life.”

Preparing for Hurricane Irma:

Classified as a typical Cape Verde hurricane, Irma developed on 30 August near the Cape Verde Islands from a tropical wave that moved off the coast of Africa two days prior.

Less than 24 hours after its initial formation into a tropical storm, Irma underwent rapid intensification due to the warm waters of the Atlantic and favorable development conditions and ballooned into a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph over only a 12-hour period.

By 5 September, Irma was a catastrophically dangerous Category 5 hurricane with a peak maximum sustained wind velocity of 185 mph (295 km/h) – making the storm tied for the second strongest Atlantic Basin hurricane by wind speed, surpassed only by Hurricane Allen in 1980 which had a maximum sustained wind velocity of 190 mph, and the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded outside the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

It is also, to date, the strongest tropical cyclone worldwide of 2017.

Despite the forecasting models agreement on Irma’s development and westward march toward the Lesser Antilles, a great deal of uncertainty within the models regarding an anticipated northward turn for Hurricane Irma remained.

Over the course of several days, the northward turn move later and later in the official forecast track and came to place Florida in a potential direct impact line with Hurricane Irma.

Monitored closely by weather satellites (and shockingly recorded on seismographs – earthquake intensity monitoring equipment in Guadeloupe, a insular region of France in the Lesser Antilles), Hurricane Irma made landfall at maximum intensity (185 mph sustained winds) on the island nation of Barbuda on 6 September.

Saint Martin/Sint Maarten and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands also took direct landfalling impacts from Hurricane Irma at maximum intensity that same day before the storm moved on toward Puerto Rico – passing north of the island commonwealth and sparing its inhabitants a devastating direct hit.

Throughout these landfalls and movement through the Caribbean, Irma maintained her intensity as a catastrophically dangerous Category 5 hurricane with 185 mph sustained winds – all as the models tried to coalesce around exactly when a northward turn would happen.

Throughout the overnight hours of 5 and 6 September, official forecast tracks for the hurricane’s center of circulation at first took Irma into the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico after passing over the Florida Keys, but by 1100 hours EDT on 6 September the official forecast track had shifted eastward – indicating a high likelihood of landfall in South Florida before heading up the eastern Florida coast toward Georgia/South Carolina.

But a great deal of uncertainty and disagreement in the models persisted.

By 11:00 EDT on 7 September, the official forecast track had Irma – as a weak Cat. 4 or strong Cat. 3 – likely passing directly over or very near KSC/CCAFS on Sunday evening, 10 September. By Saturday, the tracks had moved to the West, which may spare the Space Coast from the strongest impacts, although this will still be a threatening event.

Such uncertainty has made planning for many people in the potential landfalling area of Florida – including all of the Kennedy and Cape workforce – extremely difficult; however, the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station proceeded forward with preparations under their HURCON warning system.

Importantly, while much focus on Kennedy and Cape preparations is on the protection of vehicles, hardware, and payloads, the system is also specifically designed to ensure the protection of the workforce and that the spaceport’s people have a chance to get home, secure their own houses, and evacuate if need be.

However, an added consideration to Kennedy and the Cape’s preparations for Irma was the scheduled launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket with the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane – which was scheduled for and occurred right on time on Thursday, 7 September at 10:00 EDT.

With path uncertainty and the pending SpaceX launch, on 5 September, the CCAFS entered HURCON V earlier than the 96-hours-before-58mph-winds mark so that all HURCON V preps could be completed while still enabling Eastern Range support for Thursday’s launch of the Falcon 9.

On 6 September, NASASpaceflight.com acquired information – available in L2 – that SpaceX was working through their HURCON IV level preparations at KSC and were entering HURCON III ahead of schedule to accommodate both the anticipated launch of the Falcon 9 and the time of arrival for Hurricane Irma.

Further notes acquired and available on L2 also revealed that in the event that Falcon 9 was at the pad and a rollback due to Irma was deemed necessary, a 28 hour time line would begin that would see teams bring the Falcon 9 back down to horizontal, bring it back into the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), and conclude all securing operations inside the HIF in order to release personnel ahead of Irma.

Unlike the VAB and former OPFs, SpaceX’s HIF at LC-39A is designed to withstand 150 mph winds (or a Category 4 hurricane), in line with new building practices at CCAFS and KSC.

On 6 September, the Kennedy Space Center entered HURCON IV, before moving up the scale to HURCON I on Saturday.

NOTE:  This article is being updated – follow the live thread for up to the minute status.

As Hurricane Irma passed over or near KSC, HURCON I conditions remained in effect until sustained winds drop below 58 mph.

After released from HURCON I, EOC teams will perform an initial assessment of KSC and CCAFS grounds and facilities.

Based on the major impacts being on the west coast of Florida, hurricane damage on the space coast is not expected to be as bad as feared. However, Sunday night saw tornado warnings and a potential debris field indicating an impact around the Pad 39B area.

More will be known as the EOC’s initial survey is complete, and only with EOC permission, the Rideout Crews will begin a more detailed assessment of all facilities, flight hardware, and vehicles and will perform securing and emergency repairs “where feasible.”

As soon as possible, the Rideout Crews will be relieved to go home and a DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) crew will take over with Center assessments and securing activities.

(Images: NASA, Google Maps, NOAA L2 imagery/Brady Kennison for NASASpaceFlight.com)

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