Hurricane damage at Florida launch facilities not as bad as feared

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WASHINGTON — A powerful hurricane moving up Florida’s east coast Oct. 7 caused some damage to NASA, military and commercial facilities at Cape Canaveral, but far less than what some had feared prior to the storm’s arrival.

Hurricane Matthew had sustained winds of nearly 200 kilometers per hour when is passed just off the coast from Cape Canaveral on the morning of Oct. 7. The hurricane’s track kept the strongest part of the storm offshore, but weather stations in the area did report hurricane-force winds for several hours during the storm’s closest approach.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center closed midday Oct. 5 as the hurricane approached, with only a small “rideout” crew in place at the center as the hurricane passed. By Oct. 8, a damage assessment crew had started initial checks of the center’s launch facilities and other buildings.

That initial check showed the center had suffered only modest damage. “After the initial inspection flight Saturday morning, it was determined that the center received some isolated roof damage, damaged support buildings, a few downed power lines, and limited water intrusion,” the center said in a statement late Oct. 8.

Images released by the Kennedy Space Center indicated that the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building was largely unscathed by the storm. The building had suffered some damage when two hurricanes, neither as strong as Matthew, struck the center in 2004.

The images did reveal roof and related damage to some other buildings, including one at the KSC Press Site. The roof of the “Beach House,” a building on the coast used by astronauts prior to launches, also sustained damage. The center said in its Oct. 8 statement it would post a list of damaged buildings once workers completed a full inspection of the center.

hurricane damage at Beach House
An aerial image of the “Beach House” at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center taken Oct. 8 shows roof damage caused by Hurricane Matthew. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Damage was also reported to buildings at neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A photo posted by the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing showed an unidentified “older building” on station property that had suffered a collapsed wall. A Navaho missile, which had been placed on a stand outside the gates of the center, has fallen over during the storm.

SpaceX said its payload processing facility at Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40 was damaged during the hurricane. “Hurricane Matthew caused some damage to the exterior of SpaceX’s payload processing facility at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” company spokesman John Taylor said Oct. 9. He added there was no damage to Launch Complex 39A, the former Apollo- and shuttle-era launch pad SpaceX is renovating for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

Taylor said that SpaceX has a “ready and fully capable” backup facility for payload processing at a hangar annex building at SLC-40. However, in a speech at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering here Oct. 9, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell suggested that repairs to the payload processing facility could delay a return to flight of the company’s Falcon 9 after its Sept. 1 pad accident.

“We’re going to have to try and get that up and running as quickly as we can so we can get back to flying,” she said, reiterating that the company expects to resume Falcon 9 launches before the end of the year. “It’s a shame that, basically, the ability to process the payload in that building might keep us grounded for a little bit longer than we had hoped.”

United Launch Alliance, which operates Space Launch Complexes 37 and 41 for Delta and Atlas vehicles, respectively, reported “light to moderate damage” to its facilities at the cape, Tory Bruno, chief executive of the company, tweeted Oct. 8. “No damage to any flight assets,” he added.

Spacecraft in various facilities around Cape Canaveral, including the GOES-R weather satellite and SBIRS-3 missile warning satellites, also survived the storm without damage. The launch of GOES-R, on an Atlas 5, will likely be delayed from its previous date of early November because of weather-related delays in shipping its Atlas 5 rocket to the launch site.