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Hurricane Dorian Could Pose a Historic Threat to Kennedy Space Center

The forecast is still uncertain, but one possibility is a landfall right near the historic spaceport. NASA isn’t taking any chances.

by Maddie Stone
Aug 29 2019, 3:11pm

Hurricane Dorian is gaining strength as it churns toward Florida and is now expected to be a major, Category 3 cyclone by the weekend. The latest National Hurricane Center forecasts predict that the storm will come ashore on Monday, and while there’s still a great deal of uncertainty in where exactly landfall may occur, one possibility is right around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the historic, $11-billion spaceport that SpaceX uses to blast rockets into orbit and which will play an integral role in NASA’s planned future missions to the Moon and Mars. NASA is eyeing the forecast closely and has already begun making hurricane preparations.

Weather models from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts show Dorian continuing to travel northwest as it passes the Bahamas, before making a sharp turn to the west on Friday. The exact timing and extent of the cyclone’s westward veer isn’t certain, which means we can’t be sure where it’ll strike land (or even if it will). But if current predictions of a landfall in central Florida around Melbourne are correct, it would be historic: According to tropical meteorologist Phil Klotzbach, no major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher) have made landfall this far north on Florida’s east coast since detailed record-keeping began in 1851.

It would also make Dorian a rare menace to Kennedy Space Center, whose launchpads and other infrastructure, including the prominent, 526-foot tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), were originally designed to withstand wind speeds of a strong Category 2 or weak Category 3 storm. And Kennedy has seen its share of damage from more distant storms in the past: When Sandy passed 200 miles offshore in 2012, powerful surge obliterated a chunk of the shoreline between launchpads 39A and 39B, forcing NASA to conduct a multimillion dollar shoreline restoration effort. When Hurricane Frances made landfall 100 miles south as a Category 2 storm in 2004, it ripped tiles off the VAB, caused “substantial damage” to other buildings, and all told resulted in $100 million in property damage between Cape Canaveral’s space and military facilities.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew came very close to making landfall on space coast as a Category 4 hurricane, a scenario that “could have easily been cataclysmic,” as an Air Force official put it at the time. Instead, the storm passed tens of miles offshore and only dealt minor damage to the spaceport and Cape Canaveral’s Air Force base.

So, folks at Kennedy are taking Dorian’s threat seriously. On Friday morning, the spaceport will enter “HURCON III” status, which prompts officials to begin hurricane preparations in anticipation of 60 mph winds within 48 hours. The spaceport will shut down at 6pm on Saturday, Kennedy Space Center spokesperson Amanda Griffin told Motherboard in an email.

Griffin said teams are taking special care to protect hardware for NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, including preparing to move the mobile launcher—a nearly 400-foot tall metal structure NASA will use to assemble and launch the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft—from its current position on launchpad 39B into the VAB where it could wait out the storm in relative safety. On Wednesday, NASA rolled out one of its gargantuan, 6.6 million-pound crawler transporters to the launchpad so that it could pick up the mobile launcher and move it inside.

“NASA remains in contact with the Eastern Range for the latest weather predictions, which is located at neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” Griffin wrote in an email. “A final decision on moving the mobile launcher is expected in the near future.”

Hurricane Dorian is the latest reminder that despite Kennedy Space Center’s vital role in current and future space exploration, the spaceport is uniquely vulnerable to the more Earthly concerns of weather and climate change. Much of Kennedy’s infrastructure lies within just a few feet of sea level, on an exposed sandbar that, according to NASA’s own analysis, is threatened by extreme weather and flooding. Under low sea level rise scenarios, NASA found coastal floods that occur every ten years today could be two to three times more common by mid-century, as sea level rise amplifies the impacts of storm surge.

Slight changes in Dorian’s trajectory could greatly alter its impact on Kennedy Space Center in the coming days. Hopefully, this storm spares NASA—and everyone else in Florida—the worst.

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Kennedy Space Center