Cape Canaveral facilities prepare for Hurricane Irma

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WASHINGTON — NASA and companies that operate launch sites and other facilities at Cape Canaveral are preparing for the arrival of a powerful hurricane that has already postponed one launch on the other side of the country.

United Launch Alliance announced Sept. 8 that it was delaying the launch of an Atlas 5 carrying a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office on a mission designated NROL-42. That launch was scheduled for Sept. 14 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

ULA said that it postponed the launch so that Florida-based personnel supporting the launch in California could return home and prepare for the arrival this weekend of Hurricane Irma. “The safety of our employees and their families are at the forefront of this decision,” the company said in a statement. “A new launch date for the NROL-42 mission will be determined once the impacts of the storm are understood.”

The company has also been working to secure its launch facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Another NRO mission, NROL-52, was scheduled to launch from there on an Atlas 5 in late September.

SpaceX also has prepared its facilities in Florida, moving quickly to secure a Falcon 9 first stage that landed at Cape Canaveral after the launch Sept. 7 of the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane.

Current forecasts call for Hurricane Irma to make landfall in southern Florida as potentially a Category Four storm on the morning of Sept. 10 and move up the Florida peninsula. Those forecasts predict the storm will, 24 hours later, be centered northwest of Cape Canaveral in north central Florida as a weaker storm, but still a hurricane. Uncertainties in the forecast, though, could move the storm closer to or farther from the Space Coast region of the state.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center closed Sept. 8 for the hurricane, and will remain closed through Sept. 11. As was the case with Hurricane Matthew, which passed just offshore in October 2016, a small “rideout” team will remain at the center through the storm, monitoring conditions and performing initial damage assessments after the storm passes.

The U.S. Air Force also issued an evacuation order for nonessential personnel at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and nearby Patrick Air Force Base effective at 7 a.m. Eastern Sept. 8. Brevard County, Florida, also issued its own mandatory evacuation order for barrier islands in the county, which took effect at 3 p.m. Eastern Sept. 8.

One difference from previous hurricanes that have threatened the region is the growth of space-related facilities not directly related to launch activities. Both Blue Origin and OneWeb are currently building factories just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center that will be used to manufacture Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle and OneWeb’s broadband satellites.

Hurricane Irma has already affected one space-related event. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) announced Sept. 7 it was cancelling its AIAA Space 2017 conference, which had been scheduled for Sept. 11–15 in Orlando, because of the predicted effects of the storm. This year was the first time AIAA was holding the conference in Florida, after previously hosting it in Southern California.