Space & Innovation

Space Launch Site Spared by Hurricane Matthew

Cape Canaveral's 1960s-era rocket launch pads and facilities were not designed to withstand a Category 4 hurricane.

<p>Kennedy Space Center/Credit:NASA</p>

Hurricane Matthew's brush past Florida's Space Coast on Friday, a region that includes NASA's Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, appears to have spared the nation's primary launch site from serious damage.

NASA's two launch pads, built in the 1960s to support the Apollo moon program, were originally designed to withstand sustained winds of 114 mph and gusts of 125 mph, a NASA document shows.

One pad is now leased to Elon Musk's SpaceX, and the other is being modified for launches of NASA's heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion deep-space capsule.

Three former shuttle processing hangars, now used for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner space taxis and the Air Force's X-37B robotic spaceplanes, were designed for maximum winds of 105 mph, according to the June 2106 Kennedy Space Center Hurricane Plan Summary.

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KSC facilities built after 1992's deadly Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, were constructed to the revised engineering standard of 130-135 mph, the document said.

After pounding Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas, leaving hundreds dead, Hurricane Matthew strengthened to a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of 140 mph as it worked its way north along Florida's east coast.

As it approached Florida, the storm weakened slightly to a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of about 130 mph, as it flew roughly parallel to the peninsula's Atlantic shoreline late Thursday and Friday.

Several forecasts predicted the eye of the hurricane would pass directly over Cape Canaveral, which juts out into the ocean, but the storm ended up passing about 26 miles east at around 8 a.m. on Friday, according to NASA spokesman George Diller.

Winds reached a steady 90 mph at the spaceport, with gusts up to 107 mph, said Diller, who is among a team of 116 employees riding out the storm at KSC.

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So far, between 8- to 12 inches of rain has fallen at the spaceport. The seaside center also experienced a storm surge of 1- to 5 feet, far lower than original predictions.

KSC has weathered hurricanes before, but not one as strong or as directly aimed at the spaceport as Hurricane Matthew appeared to be.

"We've had some close calls, but as far as I know it's the first time we've had the threat of a direct hit," Diller wrote in an email before the storm.

The spaceport remained closed on Friday as Matthew headed toward northern Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

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