Image: Vehicle Assembly Building
Peter Cosgrove  /  AP file
Hurricane Frances ripped external panels off the Vehicle Assembly Building where space shuttles are prepared for flight. But NASA officials believe Hurricane Ivan will pass far enough away to spare Kennedy Space Center from further significant damage.
updated 9/11/2004 4:05:42 PM ET 2004-09-11T20:05:42

NASA’s hurricane-damaged spaceport should be able to withstand the wind and rain from Ivan if the storm stays well to the west, the Kennedy Space Center’s director said Saturday.

Forecasters had Hurricane Ivan heading into the Gulf of Mexico and staying west of the Florida peninsula — and nearly 200 miles (320 miles) west of Cape Canaveral — before possibly slamming into the state’s panhandle on Tuesday.

Last weekend, Frances stripped 1.3 acres (5,260 square meters) of aluminum siding from the giant building where space shuttles are assembled, and left gaping holes in a quarter of that acreage along with a big hole in the roof. The hurricane tore the roofs off two other structures critical to shuttle flight, and ruined an untold number of thermal protective covers being handcrafted for the interior of the spaceships.

Technicians had been working to make these thermal covers for the past two to three months, said Kennedy Space Center’s director, James Kennedy. Some of the pieces were found and being dried out, in hopes of salvaging them for flight.

Netting was hung inside the Vehicle Assembly Building to catch any debris, and a tarp and sandbags were placed on the 60-square-foot (5.6-square-meter) hole on the roof of the 52-story structure, where a vent blew out. That’s all that could be done in advance of Ivan, Kennedy said.

Checking the forecast
“We are not out of the woods,” Kennedy said, stressing that the hurricane could change course. But if it stays in the Gulf of Mexico, the space center should be pummeled with wind no higher than 46 mph (74 kilometers per hour) and just moderately heavy rain.

“This is a situation we believe we can now manage, having prepared the center for the last week,” he said. “It has been hot, grinding manual labor done in the blazing sun and dodging thunderstorms, but no complaints.”

NASA had planned to redo the roof of the Apollo-era Vehicle Assembly Building anyway in the next year or two, a $10 million job. “Now we certainly have a double motivation to follow through,” Kennedy said.

Repairs to the pockmarked southern side of the assembly building will take several weeks and be a high priority, Kennedy said. Until the holes are patched, no one will be allowed to work inside.

Effect on launch schedule unclear
Kennedy hopes to resume normal operations in the assembly building before Discovery’s external fuel tank arrives in early November, a critical step in NASA’s effort to resume shuttle flight next spring and recover from the Columbia disaster.

Damage from Hurricane Frances could pose a significant setback, however, to NASA’s launch plans. Kennedy declined to comment on just how much of a setback it might be, in terms of cost or the shuttle flight schedule.

The space center will reopen Monday following a nearly two-week shutdown, as long as Ivan stays away.

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