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Wed, Sep 08, 2004

More Fallout From Frances

Landmark Building Damaged by Hurricane Frances: "Could be worse."

by ANN Senior Correspondent Kevin 'Hognose' O'Brien

A NASA landmark is battered but still standing after Hurricane Frances threw her blustery best at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Cape Canaveral, the launch pad of the US manned spaceflight program and many other American space ventures.

The historic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the most visible structure at KSC and once the largest (in enclosed volume) building in the world, lost a large number of sheet-aluminium skin panels -- about 1,000. Each panel measures about four by ten feet. The panels are not structural but if both exterior and interior panels blow away, which in some cases they have, they expose the interior of the building to the elements -- and Hurricane Ivan is barreling towards Cuba and thereafter, perhaps, Florida.

In one area, a large number of panels ripped away, leaving a hole of about 50 feet square. Elsewhere, dangling, damaged panels will need to be secured or removed before damage assessment in depth, and repair, can begin. CNN reported that two external tanks that are inside the building are believed to be OK. NASA also moved a number of ground vehicles and equipment into the VAB.

The 525-foot tall VAB is a historic landmark; it was originally built in 1963-65 to provide an enclosed building in which the mighty Saturn V four-stage boosters of the Apollo moon program could be assembled. Prior to the construction of the VAB, large multistage rockets were assembled out-of-doors and were at the mercy of the elements. In the optimistic sixties, the VAB was designed so that it could assemble four Saturn V moon rockets at once! It is three and a half miles from Launch Complex 39 -- the distance originally designed to keep the VAB safe if a Saturn V blew up. (None ever did). Over the years, 15+ Apollo-Saturn rockets and 80 Space Shuttles were assembled in the VAB and launched from Launch Complex 39.

Another facility, which makes the thermal tiles and blankets that protect the Space Shuttle orbiters from the otherworldly heat of re-entry, also took a beating. Its roof was "partially torn off, and there is significant wall damage," NASA reported. Whether there is damage to equipment inside, and what effect the facility damage will have on KSC's current number one priority, the Space Shuttle Return to Flight, is unknown.

Considering the violence of the hurricane, which assaulted the seaside launch site with 70-knot winds, things could have been a lot worse. "Our initial feeling is we dodged a real bullet," Kennedy Space Center Director Jim Kennedy said, in a statement for the press. "Even though this was the worst storm ever to hit KSC, I feel very fortunate." While the VAB took a beating, and the damage to the tile and blanket facility is severe, careful preparation may have prevented far more serious problems.

Certainly the most welcome news to Kennedy was this: none of the facility's workers reported any injury.

Not all the hardware news is bad, either. Spacecraft on hand, including the three Space Shuttle Orbiters (Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour) and International Space Station hardware and modules, all survived undamaged, according to NASA's initial reports. Kennedy told CNN that two of the three Orbiter Processing Facilities, where the shuttles rode out the storm, are powered up again; only OPF 3 (with Discovery) lags.

A more detailed survey is ongoing. All spacecraft had been lifted off the ground to defend against flooding; the orbiters had their landing gear raised and their cargo doors closed, and were then powered down. Indeed, by the time Frances struck, the whole base had powered down as a precautionary measure, and nonessential personnel had been sent home.

KSC remains closed Tuesday while damage assessment crews do their work. Workers needed for emergency management or recovery will be called in.

There is a certain irony in NASA being victimized by a hurricane. Most weather forecasters, TV weathermen, and even the storm-obsessed internet reporter Matt Drudge frequently rely on satellite photos and data that just wouldn't exist without the efforts of NASA. Weather satellites, in particular, have made the black art of hurricane prediction and warning considerably more accurate in recent years. NASA might have lost some parts off of some of its structures, but perhaps it deserves some credit as well: for early warning of Frances and for the mercifully low death toll.



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