CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Picture a killer hurricane bearing down on the Cape Canaveral coast, a $2 billion shuttle on a beachside launch pad, and a "no vacancy" sign at a NASA assembly building that doubles as a storm shelter.
It’s a nightmare that NASA would like to avoid, especially at a time when the frequency of severe storms seems to be on the rise, and the agency is planning to fly a frenetic string of International Space Station construction missions.
At 6:30 a.m. EDT a fully stacked Shuttle – Atlantis – rolled into the Vehicle Assembly Building’s (VAB) high bay 2 on the building’s west side
So today – after two years of planning and construction -- a new $4.8 million "safe haven" for shuttles opened up at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
NASA shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach calls it "cheap insurance" for a four-orbiter fleet valued at about $8 billion.
| Shuttle Rollback History:|
|Space shuttles have been rolled back from their launch pad to the Vehicle Assembly Building 13 times since NASA launched its first shuttle mission in 1981. Tropical weather forced four of those moves:|
October 1990: Columbia rolled back to avoid Tropical Storm Klaus.August 1995: Endeavor was hauled off the launch pad just days before Hurricane Erin made landfall less than 50 miles south of Kennedy Space Center.
July 1996: Atlantis was hauled back into the VAB when Hurricane Berthathreatened the east central coast of Florida.September 1996: Hurricane Fran forced NASA to move Atlantis into the VAB again.
"It just seems like there has been more hurricane activity over the last three or four years, and a couple of close calls and scares [during that time] probably heightened sensitivity," Leinbach said in an interview with SPACE.com.
The new shelter also will give NASA unprecedented leeway when it comes to shuttle launch preparations during the hurricane season, which extends from June 1 through November 30 each year.
As many as three shuttle vehicles – rather than the longstanding limit of two – now can be fully assembled during the six-month storm season. And with more than three dozen station-construction missions still to be flown, that in and of itself is expect to pay huge dividends.
"It will give us the flexibility to continue processing at a high rate [and] not be so restricted because of the tropical season," said NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore.
"Now, if we have two vehicles on the pads, we’ll have a place to put them [if a severe storm approaches KSC]," he said. "We have not had that in the past."
Located just 9 feet (2.7 meters) above sea level on the east central coast of Florida, KSC often sits in the path of potentially deadly and destructive hurricanes that brew off the west coast of Africa and barrel across the Atlantic Ocean.
Last year alone, three hurricanes – Dennis, Floyd and Irene – and Tropical Storm Harvey all threatened NASA’s shuttle homeport.
Floyd and Irene came within 121 and 35 miles (194 and 56 kilometers) of KSC, respectively, in what amounted to uncomfortably close calls. Crucial shuttle- and cargo-processing hangars were pummeled with driving rain and high winds that ripped off siding, damaged roofs and cut off power and phone service.
Click here to find out more about space shuttle facilities and how they withstand storms.
But in both cases, NASA’s winged orbiters all were buttoned up in either shuttle-processing hangars or the KSC Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and none of the ships were damaged.
Up until now, the threat of severe weather has kept NASA from fully assembling more than two shuttles during the annual hurricane season.
Only two of four high bays in the 52-story VAB – which originally was built for Saturn 5 moon rockets -- were equipped to store complete shuttle "stacks," which are comprised of two solid-fuel rocket boosters, an external tank and a winged orbiter atop a mobile launcher platform.
Atlantis began moving out of VAB high bay 1 at 2:59 a.m. EDT.
Consequently, whenever a shuttle was on the launch pad during hurricane season, one of the two bays – both of which are located on the east side of the building -- always had to be kept relatively clear in case a severe storm forced a hasty retreat back into the VAB.
NASA safety rules call for a shuttle to be moved off the launch pad and back into the VAB if sustained winds are expected to exceed 69 miles (110 kilometers) per hour. That happened four times during the 1990s – a decade of increased tropical storm and hurricane activity.
The so-called shuttle "rollbacks" – coupled with the ambitious station-construction schedule – prompted NASA last year to begin renovating a third VAB high bay so it can accommodate a fully assembled shuttle.
Located on the west side of the VAB, the new hurricane "safe haven" previously was used to check out 15-story external tanks and store solid-rocket booster segments.
A buried portion of an Apollo-era "crawlerway" – which once served as a road to the launch pad for moon-bound Saturn 5 rockets -- also was unearthed and restored to provide shuttle stacks with an access road to the new shelter. Specially designed to handle the tremendous weight of a 36-story Saturn 5 moon rocket, the crawlerway is 7 feet (2 meters) deep and is topped with Alabama and Tennessee river rock to reduce surface friction.
In addition, a new paved tow-way was built, enabling NASA to roll shuttle orbiters on their landing gear into the fourth high bay on the northwest side of the VAB.
The refurbished crawlerway got its first shuttle-era workout early today.
Mounted atop a giant tracked transporter, shuttle Atlantis pulled out of high bay 1 on the east side of the VAB and then made a slow, looping journey around the north end of the building and into the new hurricane safe haven.
The idea was to make certain a fully assembled shuttle fits into the new shelter.
Said Leinbach: "If we ever do get trapped at the pad with a storm coming, there won’t be that question about whether [a shuttle] will fit or not."
The shuttle’s stay in the new shelter, however, will be short-lived. Set for launch September 8 on a mission to the International Space Station, Atlantis is scheduled to begin an overnight crawl out to launch pad 39B late Monday night.