Hurricane Matthew Is A Nightmare Scenario For Kennedy Space Center

All signs are pointing toward deadly hurricane Matthew slamming directly into Space Coast — home to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — on Friday. If that unfortunate prediction comes true, it will be the worst storm to hit the iconic Florida spaceport since it was built in 1962. An Atlas V rocket blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 8 September 2016. Image: AP

Weaker and more distant storms have dealt Kennedy considerable damage in the past. A direct hit by a Category 3 or 4 monster is a nightmare scenario for NASA's crown-jewel, the $US11 billion ($14.5 billion) spaceport.

Kennedy Space Center's launchpad 39A. Photo: NASA

The space agency has always known that such a storm was possible at Kennedy, whose two launchpads rise like giant concrete lilies from a swampy barrier island with nothing but a thin, rapidly eroding stretch of beach to protect them from the sea. The centre was built this way for a very good reason, to avoid rocket explosions over populated areas. But in the age of human-caused climate change, Kennedy's exposure to the ocean has become its Achilles heel.

In the Atlantic, the frequency of powerful hurricanes and large surge events has been rising in step with rising temperatures, which provide more energy to grow and sustain monster storms. And Space Coast has been feeling the consequences. As sources at Kennedy told me during a recent visit, coastal damage from hurricanes has been a major problem since at least the early 2000s.

Hurricane Sandy flattened protective dunes between Launchpads 39A and 39B, resulting in millions of dollars of shoreline reparations. Photo: NASA.

When Category 2 Hurricane Frances made landfall roughly 160km south of Kennedy in 2004, tropical storm-force winds lashed Space Coast, ripping more than a thousand panels off the Vehicle Assembly Building and resulting in $US100 million ($131.9 million) worth of damage. When enormous Hurricane Sandy passed 322km offshore in 2012, a 30m chunk of beach between launchpads 39A and 39B was devoured by the ocean, resulting in millions of dollars of shoreline reparations.

Vehicle Assembly Building in 2004, after Hurricane-froce winds ripped off a significant chunk of outer paneling. Image: Wikimedia.

Here's the thing about Matthew: Space Coast has never dealt with anything like it. Not in launch history; not in meteorological records dating back to 1851. The storm is projected to pass perilously close to Florida's entire eastern seaboard beginning later today, with a Category 3 or 4 eye passing directly over Kennedy Space Center on Friday, according to Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters.

"We're talking about a storm that's basically hitting dead-on," Masters told Gizmodo. "I'd expect at least 90 mile [145km] per hour winds."

The latest forecast cone for Hurricane Matthew, which hits Florida's coast later today. Image: National Hurricane Center

Kennedy's Orbiter Processing Facilities are rated to withstand sustained winds of 169km/h. The Vehicle Assembly Building and launchpads hold together up until about 185km/h, while newer buildings constructed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are designed to weather 209km/h winds.

Exactly how badly Kennedy will get walloped depends on a few factors. Firstly, will the storm stay its projected, coast-hugging course? If it passes Kennedy even a few kilometres further out to sea, the damage might be considerably less. Secondly, will Matthew's arrival coincide with high tide? As the National Hurricane Center notes, "surge-related flooding depends on the relative timing of the surge and the tidal cycle, and can vary greatly over short distances."

If the storm does hit at high tide, the NHC warns of surges as high as 2.75m from central Florida all the way up into southern Georgia. Most of Kennedy's infrastructure sits between 1.5 and 3m above sea level.

Yesterday, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station entered "HURCON II" condition, releasing all non mission-essential personnel and suspending operations. A mandatory evacuation for all "personnel and residents on barrier islands, in manufactured homes and in slosh zones" began at 6:00AM AEDT.

Kennedy, meanwhile, has suspended all operations for the next two days, and last night entered HURCON I condition. "Hurricane preparations at Kennedy were completed early last night and remaining employees were then sent home," a statement emailed to Gizmodo reads. "Tropical storm force winds are expected at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral late this evening followed by hurricane force winds early Friday morning." (For those following this story in Australia time, hurricane preparations were completed late yesterday morning, and tropical force winds are expected this morning followed by hurricane force winds this evening.)

Space Coast is being left to the elements. The only question is what will remain when the storm's through with it.

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