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Let’s suppose you’re trying to run a spaceport, launching office building sized objects with passengers into low Earth orbit. And let’s suppose you’ve got the one of the world’s largest buildings, the Vehicle Assembly Building (525 ft tall, 716 ft long and 518 ft wide or 129,428,000 cubic feet of space), right there at the spaceport. And just for fun let’s throw in a fleet of shuttles and a recalcitrant tropical storm that’s as anxious to leave the spaceport as Hillary Clinton was to leave the Democratic primaries. What do you do?

That was the real world problem faced by NASA this past week. Not only was there the very real threat of near hurricane force winds from Tropical Storm Fay, there was also the anticipation of hour-after-hour of torrential downpours–and some actual precipitation reports in the area have already exceed two feet of rain! That’s tough to fathom.

In one way NASA was lucky. The space shuttle fleet was inside their individual Orbiter Processing Facilities (think immense hangars) powered down with their payload bay doors shut tight. Shuttle Atlantis had been scheduled to move to the Vehicle Assembly Building–a move that’s been postponed but shouldn’t delay the next shuttle launch in early October. Most likely Atlantis would have been fine there too.

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“The VAB is designed to withstand winds of up to 125 miles per hour. Its foundation rests on more than 4,200 open- end steel pilings 16 inches in diameter driven down 160 feet to bedrock.” – NASA

That’s not to say the VAB hasn’t been damaged. In 1984 the building lost around 1,000 4×10 foot panels as Hurricane Francis moved through the region. Lightning in Florida is a huge problem too. One storm in 2006 sent 100,000 amps of current through the lightning protection system at the launch pad.

“While the lightning protection system worked, shielding the shuttle Atlantis from a direct hit, engineers were concerned about induced currents that showed up in a brief spike in one of the shuttle’s main circuits and another in a launch pad pyrotechnic system.” (source:NASA)

NASA sent most Kennedy Space Center personnel home from Cape Canaveral, but they did keep a “ride out crew” of 200 on-site just in case. As Tropical Storm Fay begins to head west assessments will be made. Right now it looks like “there is no damage to space flight hardware, such as the space shuttles and Hubble Space Telescope equipment. Some facilities did sustain minor damage. Most reports are of water intrusion that will require mopping up.”

In some ways it’s funny this incredibly resilient space gear has to be protected from a mere hurricane when it’s designed to orbit the Earth at around 17,500 mph!


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