NASA flight controllers shelter in place during storm


File photo of the International Space Station flight control room in Houston. Credit: NASA

Flight controllers and other essential personnel at NASA’s Johnson Space Center just south of Houston are sheltering in place, maintaining contact with the International Space Station during torrential rain and flooding across south Texas from the slow-moving remnants of Hurricane Harvey.

“The Center will be closed tomorrow (Monday) to all but Mission Essential Personnel,” the JSC emergency management office said in a web posting. “Senior management will evaluate on a day-to-day basis after Monday.

“Instructions for excused leave for this time period will be issued after the Center re-opens. Due to school closures and the likelihood of flooding and power outages across the JSC and surrounding Houston area, it is unreasonable to expect employees to telework safely.”

In the meantime, flight controllers in JSC’s mission control center remain in contact with the space station, monitoring a rocket firing Saturday to raise the lab’s orbit slightly, putting the outpost on the proper trajectory for three crew members to depart next Saturday for a landing in Kazakhstan.

Three fresh crew members are scheduled for launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Sept. 12 to boost the station crew back up to six.

“The station is safe, the crew is safe, everything is fine,” said a NASA official riding out the storm at his home in nearby Nassau Bay.

Credit: National Weather Service

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the $8.6 billion successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is sealed in a huge thermal vacuum chamber at Johnson for extensive pre-flight tests. So far, NASA said in a statement, the weather has not posed any threat to the costly instrument and “there are no concerns.”

Early Sunday, the space station flew over Texas and the astronauts shot video of the storm from their perch 250 miles up. But flight controllers told them no one was available to take in and process the imagery.

“All right, you guys have got photos of Harvey on SSC-21 if you like,” an astronaut called down, telling controllers where to find the recorded shots.

“Copy, photos of Harvey on SSC-21,” mission control replied. “We do not have an ops plan on this shift because of Harvey, ironically, so we will get them when we can.”

Veteran flight director Royce Renfrew responded to a tweet asking if he was safe by saying
“I am yes but we are on an island apparently. See video of high water rescues half a mile from here.” A few moments later, he added: “Yup def on an island. No way out of my area. Abandoned cars all over on the roads.”

Overnight, the Johnson Space Center’s Twitter account for emergency communications — @JSCSOS — tweeted “multiple reports of flooding homes all around our area. Water onsite is over the sidewalks approaching steps. Knee deep in streets.”

By early Sunday, rainfall near the space center reached 22.23 inches — 20.83 inches at nearby Ellington Field — with more rain expected over the next several days. At 12:51 p.m., @JSCSOS reported “heavy rain hammering us again. Avoid travel if at all possible. Roads filling up again.”

But there were no immediate reports of flooding in any critical facilities and large generators are available in case power is lost.