updated 9/22/2005 8:01:48 PM ET 2005-09-23T00:01:48

NASA’s legendary base for astronaut training and Mission Control was empty Thursday as Hurricane Rita aimed for the Texas Gulf Coast and posed a flooding risk to Johnson Space Center.

The space center was locked down, with the power turned off, and monitoring duties for the international space station were turned over to Russian flight controllers outside Moscow. The same thing happened in 2002 when another approaching storm threatened the space center.

The most important items and work spaces — shuttle simulators, moon rocks and Mission Control — are in secure, windowless rooms, in buildings designed to withstand well above 100 mph winds, said Kyle Herring, a spokesman for the Houston space center.

Mission Control is on the second floor. The shuttle simulators are located on the first floor of another building, but are elevated. The moon rocks collected by Apollo astronauts from 1969 through 1972, as well as meteorites, are in an even more protected location on site.

Johnson Space Center, which employs about 13,000 people, is in a particularly flood-prone spot, on the eastern edge of Houston. If Mission Control flooded or was severely damaged, additional flight controllers would be dispatched to Moscow to work from there for as long as necessary, said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman in Washington.

A small group of flight controllers was sent to Austin, Texas, and another to Greenbelt, Md., for consultation in case of a space station emergency.

A team of 82 people was supposed to ride out the hurricane at Johnson, but that plan was nixed because of the storm’s intensity.

NASA has been hard-hit by hurricanes over the past year. Three — Charley, Frances and Jeanne — caused extensive damage last summer to the launch facilities at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Three weeks ago, Katrina smacked Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., where shuttle main engines are tested, and Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where shuttle fuel tanks are built.

Both Stennis and Michoud, still in recovery from Katrina, braced for possible heavy rain and wind from Rita.

The storms have disrupted NASA’s plans to resume shuttle flights next year and will almost certainly bump the next mission from March into late spring, summer or even later. Launches were put on hold after a large chunk of foam insulation broke off Discovery’s fuel tank during liftoff in July.

“There’s never a good time” for a hurricane, Herring said, speaking by phone from Austin, where he evacuated.

Added Beutel: “One step at a time.”

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