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How NASA is preparing for Irma at its most important Florida spaceport

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Kennedy Space Center has lots of hurricane experience

The Vertical Assembly Building at KSC
Image: NASA

As Hurricane Irma barrels toward Florida, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is preparing its facilities to withstand the monster storm. Located at Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast, KSC is NASA’s biggest spaceport, supporting all of the agency’s past human spaceflight missions and many commercial satellite launches. It’s close to the middle of Irma’s projected path and is expected to experience major high-speed winds this weekend.

Fortunately, KSC is built to handle hurricanes. The large Vehicle Assembly Building, once used to assemble the Space Shuttles prior to launch, is able to withstand winds of 125 miles per hour. After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, all new KSC buildings constructed were built to withstand winds between 130 and 135 miles per hour. Irma is now a Category 4 storm, with 150 mph winds, but it’s expected to downgrade by the time it reaches Cape Canaveral.

To get ready for the storm, KSC uses an alert scale designed for the US armed forces called HURCON. Yesterday — 48 hours before Irma’s arrival — the center was at HURCON III, the preparation phase. NASA and the various aerospace companies that lease buildings at KSC, such as SpaceX and Boeing, were at work protecting all of their hardware — such as covering their computers with plastic to protect them from flooding. “Each organization has specific checklists they need to go through,” Al Feinberg, a NASA communications officer at KSC, tells The Verge.

Meanwhile, many high-value assets have been parked inside the Vertical Assembly Building, such as the Universal Coolant Transporter System — a piece of equipment once used to cool down the Space Shuttle when it returned to Earth — and portions of the Mobile Launch Platform — a moveable pad that will support launches of NASA’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System. Construction sites and materials at the other launchpads have been secured as well, Feinberg says.

Hurricane Irma, seen from NASA's Aqua satellite
Image: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Next door to KSC, the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is also making necessary preparations to secure its launchpads, which are used by both SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance. An evacuation order is in place for non-essential personnel at Patrick Air Force Base, which oversees launches from the station.

This morning, KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are at HURCON II, meaning there’s 24 hours to go before Irma. KSC is now closed to all non-essential personnel until Monday — when the storm is supposed to be gone. On any given day, an average of 7,900 employees work onsite at KSC, but over the weekend, there will be a small group of 120 workers riding out the storm at the center. This “ride out team,” which includes NASA personnel and representatives from companies that lease the KSC facilities, is meant to keep KSC’s infrastructure operational during Irma. “We’re caretakers on site, and we want to be here,” says Feinberg, who’s on the team. “It’s better for us to be here so we can assess things in a more timely fashion.”

The ride out team will stay inside the Launch Control Center, a building used to supervise launches from KSC. “It’s a Category 5 building,” says Feinberg, “engineered to withstand winds that Irma is currently packing.” The team will likely be called in on Saturday to spend the weekend there. Once the storm has passed, they will drive around the center and take note of all the damage, specifically looking for anything that needs immediate attention. After that initial assessment is over, a new team of personnel will arrive — the Damage Assessment Recovery Team, or DART. They’ll do a more detailed analysis and figure out how many repairs are needed. KSC will then reopen once it’s deemed safe for employees.

KSC has been through this process numerous times before, most recently last year with Hurricane Matthew. The Category 5 hurricane caused millions of dollars in damage, but KSC was mostly spared and able to reopen shortly after the storm had passed. Hurricane Irma, however, is unprecedented: it’s one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic and the first storm to sustain 185 mph winds for over a day. It’s unclear exactly what its impact on Florida will be.

However, Feinberg wants people to know that he and his team are ready. “The American people who are invested in space should feel confident we’re doing the best we can to protect our assets here,” he says.