Cape battered by Hurricane Frances; Ivan threatens
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: September 6, 2004
Hurricane Frances battered the Kennedy Space Center with sustained winds of more than 70 mph, ripping off an estimated 40,000 square feet of siding on the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building and partially destroying the roof of a critical heat shield tile facility needed for NASA's shuttle return to flight effort.
Recovering from the impact of Frances could delay NASA's first post-Columbia shuttle flight, now targeted for March, officials said today. But center Director Jim Kennedy said the damage, while the worst in spaceport history, was not a disaster "by any stretch of the imagination" and that it was too soon to say what impact it might have on the agency's return-to-flight efforts.
"It's way too early for us to state that we do or don't have a problem," he said. "But as you know, we were working hard to protect the shuttle return-to-flight date of March and we'll just have to see how that goes."
More important than the shuttle's eventual launch date is the potential impact of Hurricane Ivan, a powerful storm that some computer models show tracking toward Florida's east coast. Given the damage caused by the category 1 winds of Hurricane Frances, Kennedy sees Ivan as a potential "doomsday scenario" that could affect the future of America's manned space program.
"I don't want to speculate on what possible worse damage we could have with a category 2, 3, 4, 5 direct hit," Kennedy said. "It would certainly be significant to the future of human spaceflight."
NASA closed the space center last Thursday, sending 12,000 contractors and 2,000 civil servants home to make their own preparations for Frances. The agency's three space shuttles, mounted on jacks in their Orbiter Processing Facility hangars, were powered down, their cargo bay doors closed and their landing gear raised and stowed.
Sandbags and plywood panels were used to shore up vulnerable doors and windows while NASA trucks and cranes were moved inside the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building.
A disaster assessment-response team, or DART, began surveying damage today and a teleconference with senior NASA managers is planned tomorrow to review the results.
A preliminary inspection shows NASA's three multi-billion-dollar space shuttles - Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour - came through the hurricane unscathed, as did critical hardware bound for the international space station as well as an astronomy satellite scheduled for launch next month.
But the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, suffered major damage to its protective skin and a facility that manufactures and repairs heat-shield tiles for the shuttle fleet lost at least part of its roof.
"The tile facility, which is located out in the general area of the OPFs and the VAB, has taken significant loss," Kennedy said. "We believe the roof is partially gone, it has extensive water damage within the facility. That could possibly be a very difficult situation to deal with because tile manufacturing is to some extent on the critical path for return to flight."
The Vehicle Assembly Building is a national icon, a massive, 525-foot-tall cube originally built to assemble 36-story Saturn 5 moon rockets. Today, NASA uses the facility to build up space shuttle boosters atop mobile launch platforms, to attach the shuttle's solid-fuel external tank and the orbiter itself prior to rollout to the launch pad.
The only flight hardware in the VAB when Frances struck were two external tanks, both protected by dense scaffolding and access platforms, and two booster "aft skirts" that are the first pieces mounted to the launch platform.
Engineers estimate the VAB lost about 1,000 4-by-10 foot aluminum panels on its south and east sides, starting about 100 feet up and extending to a height of 350 feet or so. "And that would include typically not only the outer panel, but the insulation and in some cases, a sub panel behind it to where it's like an open window to the VAB," Kennedy said.
Repairing the VAB is "certainly a high priority for us," he said. "As you think about things that are time critical, the VAB repair is one. Not only because we need the VAB to process hardware, but I am concerned about Ivan and 40,000 square feet of open window exposed to Ivan.
"I will tell you the preliminary input of the facilities folks was they really didn't know how, with five days notice before Ivan arrives, how we could do much in temporary repair. ... They have great concern about how they might be able to do that with just a few days' time."
Hurricane Charley, which skirted the northern boundary of the Kennedy Space Center last month, caused some $700,000 damage. The cost to recover from Frances, which was barely a category 1 storm when it hit Brevard County, is not yet known.
"I don't consider this to be a disaster by any stretch of the imagination," Kennedy said. "How big the bump in the road (for return to flight) is to be determined. It's a bump in the road for sure. You may or may now know that with Hurricane Charley, which just kissed the northern tip of Kennedy Space Center with the south eyewall as it passed across Volusia County, we took a $700,000 damage. This one is going to be significantly more than that. But how significant, I don't know so how big the bump in the road is, we don't know."
All in all, he said, "the initial feeling was that we had dodged a big bullet."
"If you think about what we believed we might have to deal with five, six, seven days ago, was a hurricane category 4, with the possibility of growth to a five and a direct hit to the Kennedy Space Center," he said. "I was significantly worried about the future of human space flight based upon that doomsday scenario.
"So when they drove on site today and saw most of the buildings intact, very few trees down, most of the power lines still up ... it wasn't the appearance of a war zone like we have seen on (in hurricane newscasts). It wasn't like that. So I feel very fortunate it's as minimal as it is."
As for Hurricane Ivan, Kennedy said his team of forecasters, led by John Madura, believe the storm has the potential to pose the same sort of doomsday scenario he worried about last week.
"Some of the models show it coming up close to the space coast of Florida," Kennedy said. "John Madura's one of the best and when he's worried, I'm worried."
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