Kennedy Space Center Hurricane Matthew damage less than feared
Many feared the worst for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the early morning hours of Oct. 7, 2016, as Hurricane Matthew lashed the Cape Canaveral area with wind speeds up to 135.8 mph (218.5 km/h). Though expected to make landfall as a Category 4 storm, Matthew remained offshore slightly weakened to Category 3, sparing KSC from the full fury of the Atlantic basin storm.
On Oct. 12, 2016, KSC Director Bob Cabana and Damage Assessment and Recovery Team (DART) Chief Bob Holl briefed the media about how the center fared after its brush with the storm.
Both Cabana and Holl described winds of 75 knots (86.31 mph / 138.9 km/h) at ground level, and 118 knots (135.8 mph / 218.5 km/h) above 100 feet (30.48 meters). The eye of Hurricane Matthew wobbled more than 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) offshore on its journey up the Florida coast and did not make landfall at the Cape, as was feared.
It was that wobble, and the coinciding low tide, that likely saved many of the structures at Kennedy.
“Even though I saw a lot of damage, I had great relief because it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been,” stated Cabana when describing his observations after an aerial survey of the facility. “We were definitely blessed.”
Cabana was pleased to announce that 100 percent of the center’s staff had been accounted for and were safe, with none reporting any serious injury to themselves or significant damage to personal property.
As those workers return to the center, some will have to take up temporary residence in makeshift office space as their facilities are repaired from the damage that the storm did cause. Holl did not have a total but was confident the number of displaced personnel was fewer than 100.
KSC’s most iconic structure, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), weathered the hurricane relatively well, with only minor damage to one of the roll-up doors on the northern side of the facility. This was significantly less than what the VAB suffered when Hurricane Frances hit the Center in 2004, where it lost quite a few panels.
Analysis of the building after Frances’ impact indicated that corroded hardware contributed to the storm damage. Cabana noted they have since learned to use stainless steel washers and lock nuts on the VAB’s panels.
The VAB’s utility annex wasn’t quite as lucky. The storm ripped off a section of the building’s roof, exposing the equipment within to the elements. A significant amount of rain got into the switching and control hardware for the air chiller system for the VAB area. With the chillers down, many of the buildings were rendered uninhabitable.
Under procedures honed from disaster drills, the center was able to quickly source auxiliary chillers from Atlanta and Charlotte. This rapid response allowed them to resume operations in certain areas as soon as the morning of Oct. 12.
The center’s Operations Support Buildings (OSB) I and II also sustained damage from the storm. OSB II lost a significant portion of its roof, allowing water to reach down to at least the second floor. Though the building should have been able to withstand the winds from Matthew, Cabana was quick to point out a Category 3 storm is pretty powerful. The center will work to figure out why the roof may have failed and rebuild it to a higher standard.
Some of KSC’s outlying metal buildings lost sections of their roofs, and some of the trailers used by contract personnel working on the VAB were destroyed. Damage was also sustained at the Kennedy Space Center Conference Center, otherwise known as the Astronaut Beach House.
The Beach House is a lone remnant of a subdivision that occupied that section of what was known as Neptune Beach in 1962. It is a place that has served as a gathering spot for many astronauts. It lost much of its protective roof covering and suffered serious water damage to the interior. In response to a question from a reporter, Cabana noted a full inspection, along with a cost estimate, will have to be completed before a decision to repair it can be made.
Of special interest was the disposition of the famed eagle’s nest near the Center’s main thoroughfare.
“The eagle’s nest survived,” said Cabana when asked how it fared. “Wildlife are pretty darned capable of burrowing under and staying safe, and I think they did well. I was really impressed to see that the eagle’s nest was still up there in the tree.”
Less clear, however, was the status of upcoming launches. When asked about the possibility of delays to the approaching launch of the GOES-R satellite scheduled for Nov. 4, 2016, Cabana suggested asking The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as any delay in their scheduled launch is their call.
With no damage to Pad 39B or the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP), Cabana was more confident that Matthew had no effect on the preparations for the Space Launch System’s (SLS) Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) flight, tentatively scheduled for the latter half of 2018.
“I don’t know, at this time, of any significant issues that will impact SLS or Orion as a result of the hurricane,” Cabana said.
As remediation crews work to repair the damage to the facility, everyone is eager to get back to launching rockets.
“Time to get back to the business of being America’s premiere spaceport and heading off on our Journey to Mars,” Cabana said. “So let’s go do it!”
Video courtesy of NASA
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.