Thursday, October 6, 2016

Matthew Blows, Part 2

The Vehicle Assembly Building in September 2004 after Hurricane Frances. Image source: Kennedy Space Center photo archives.

Twenty-four hours from now, the American space program will be very different.

Two hurricanes struck Kennedy Space Center in 2004, Frances and then Jeanne. My September 2004 blog article looked at the damage caused by those two hurricanes.

Frances was a Category 4, but dropped to Category 2 just before landfall. The strongest gust was 94 miles per hour, but the sustained winds were 68 MPH.

As of this writing, the hourly wind projections for KSC according to The Weather Channel have 100+ MPH sustained winds from 2 AM to 8 AM EDT, up to 110 MPH. After that, winds of 75+ MPH (hurricane velocity) continue into mid-afternoon.

In 2004, KSC's Vehicle Assembly Building lost about 800 panels. The Space Shuttle program was inactive at the time due to the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, so the orbiters had been safed in their hangars and little was happening inside the VAB. The building's original roof was fairly tattered, so a new roof was installed.

Twelve years later, with sustained winds more than 30 MPH stronger, I suspect the VAB will be stripped down to its skeleton. The original pylons go down 160 feet into the bedrock. The steel structure will survive, but the VAB will be down to its birthday suit.

Aluminum panels are replaceable.

Most work in the VAB and surrounding facilities now is to upgrade High Bay 3 for the Space Launch System. Mobile platforms are being installed to work with the new tower parked outside.

The first uncrewed SLS launch on paper is scheduled for November 2018. Most external observers think it's more like 2019, but the hurricane will give NASA plenty of reason to slip the launch date.

If the mobile launch platform survives intact, there isn't much at Pad 39B that could be damaged by high velocity winds. Both KSC pads are inland from the shoreline, I'd guess about a half-mile. The pads themselves are elevated more than 40 feet, so storm surge would only affect any subterranean infrastructure. After Hurricane Sandy, NASA built up sand berms along the shoreline, so I'm not worried about Pad 39B.

With SpaceX at Pad 39A, though, that's a different matter.

As most of you know, SpaceX had a kaboom at Pad 40 on September 1. Little damage occurred beyond the pad itself, but SpaceX was planning to move its commercial launch manifest over to 39A until 40 could be repaired.

The new horizontal integration hangar at the base of the 39A ramp is an immediate concern. Like the VAB, it could be stripped. Three landed Falcon 9 boosters are stored inside.

Much of the old Space Shuttle launch tower remains. SpaceX had planned to remove the Rotating Service Structure this year, but that didn't happen. Although SpaceX doesn't need it, the RSS could launch pieces like ninja stars at over 100 MPH into the neighboring infrastructure.

Over at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Pad 40's integration hangar is elevated. The United Launch Alliance vertical towers at Pads 37 and 40 are more friendly targets for high winds.

Many historic sites will probably disappear into the past in the next 24 hours. I doubt that much of the Cape's 1950s-era Industrial Area will survive. The 1890s-vintage lighthouse will have its ultimate test, as will neighboring Hangar C, where Dr Wernher von Braun had his office for the first launches off the tip of the Cape in the early 1950s.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the main destination for global tourists, opened in August 1967. The earliest buildings would seem vulnerable. Space Shuttle Atlantis, built in 2012-2013, theoretically has a roof capable of withstanding 300 MPH winds. I'm not optimistic about the fate of the Rocket Garden. A new attraction, Heroes and Legends, is scheduled to open in November. It includes the former U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame that moved from across the Indian River.

What happens to the Space Coast in the next day will be a turning point in U.S. spaceflight. We'll have a better idea of how much remains once the clouds clear.

As I conclude, The Weather Channel is reporting that Matthew may reach Category 5. Yikes.

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