On the eve of Hurricane Irma‘s landfall, a scene out of a dystopian sci-fi novel unfolded around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. There, in the path of the unprecedented storm, SpaceX managed to launch a secret uncrewed spacecraft for the Air Force and bring its Falcon 9 back home for a ground landing. Meanwhile, just a few miles away from Landing Zone 1, a group of young female prisoners in striped uniforms loaded sandbags into the cars of locals, preparing for catastrophe.
In the towns around Kennedy, gas stations and grocery stores began to run out of supplies while roads slowly began to resemble parking lots. And in the hours following the rocket launch and startling sonic boom, Florida’s governor ordered the evacuation of the space coast’s surrounding counties to protect from a storm that has already left parts of the Caribbean in ruin.
Moves to prepare the bustling spaceport for Irma’s destructive winds and torrential rain started on Wednesday. Preparation was scrambled, but the mood among personnel at Kennedy Space Center is more “sigh” than panic. For Brevard and Volusia county residents who work at the facility, the dire warnings are nothing new. They experienced a brief panic only a year ago, before Hurricane Matthew made landfall as a category 4 storm. It resulted in relatively minor damage—destroying the roofs of an operations building and the historic yellow beach house where astronauts since the Apollo era have brought their families before missions—but the repairs ran into the millions. Bob Cabana, director of Kennedy Space Center, claimed they got “lucky.”
But just because workers are skeptical doesn’t mean the spaceport is taking things lightly. As Hurricane Irma’s path shifted in the direction of the space coast on Wednesday, NASA sent out a Hurcon IV advisory. Part of an elevating system of alerts, the IV level tells workers across Kennedy—including various private companies and contractors—to start getting supplies ready, tie things down, and familiarize themselves with safety and emergency procedures.
The buildings that house spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center are built to withstand hurricanes. Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is being assembled in an old space shuttle hangar, and right next door is where the classified X-37B space plane—one of which was launched by SpaceX Thursday—is processed before and after a mission. Both buildings, along with the Vehicle Assembly Building that will shelter ground vehicles during the hurricane, can withstand up to 125 mph winds, what you’d expect from a category 3 hurricane. As of early Friday, Irma’s winds are expected to hit between 100 and 125 mph as it passes over the area.
After Hurcon IV was issued early Wednesday morning, Kennedy’s atmosphere began to change, says Rachel Cox, an engineer working on hazardous asteroid detection. Everyone has their own opinion about whether Irma will be as catastrophic as it seems, citing past false alarms. Others argue that not preparing for the worst could result in a disaster for their work projects and personal lives. Cox says that management emphasized human safety over the preservation of project-related infrastructure and equipment.
On Thursday, right before SpaceX launched at exactly 10 AM Eastern, Kennedy Space Center upgraded to Hurcon III, increasing readiness protocols for an incoming Hurricane. That advisory requires personnel to fully fuel all vehicles and wrap all computers and electronic devices in heavy duty plastic. Data is also backed up. According to an internal Hurricane Preparedness Plan revision issued in June and obtained by WIRED, personnel must also check that drums and materials at hazardous waste sites are secure.
One major concern is NASA’s Orion spacecraft, being built at Kennedy’s Operations and Checkout building which was also built to withstand category 3 winds. It’s a billion-dollar crew vehicle built by Lockheed Martin—and the key component in NASA’s plans to return to the moon. The spacecraft is also part of a long-term vision to launch humans toward Mars atop the agency’s delayed Space Launch System rocket. The Orion spacecraft currently inside the O&C is undergoing a series of “power ons” in which critical electronic sub-systems and computer software are tested for reliability. NASA wants to use the spacecraft to launch an uncrewed mission to lunar orbit for a full test of its capabilities.
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Lockheed Martin told WIRED that Kennedy will have a so-called “ride out” team that will ensure Orion’s safety during Irma’s landfall, but the company’s own staffers won’t be part of it. Instead, Lockheed has activated a recovery team that will be standing by to access facilities if they need to. “We are executing our hurricane plan which includes all flight hardware being covered and secured,” says a Lockheed Martin spokesman. “The team is performing walk downs to ensure there is no loose debris around the outside of the buildings, and putting sandbags around the outside of the facility doors.” Lockheed Martin employs 1,059 employees at the space coast, with 80 of them assigned to Orion.
Outside of their jobs, the Kennedy engineers, scientists, and contractors who live nearby have to worry about the loss of personal belongings and even their homes. Chelsea Partridge and her boyfriend Matt Rowland both work for contractors that directly support human spaceflight and crewed deep space exploration. “We just closed on our first home a little over a week ago. It’s just 15 minutes from here,” says Rowland. “We’re staying put for now, but watching the situation.” Partridge explains that they are still in the process of moving and heavily considered packing up their two dogs and cat to head north for South Carolina. “I’m not too worried about flooding, but the potential for wind damage is concerning,” she says. “After seeing the deadly destruction in Barbuda, I’m very concerned.”
As for SpaceX, the company follows the lead of their landlords when it comes to hurricane readiness. The commercial spaceflight company’s large hangar at the base of former Apollo Pad 39A, rented from NASA, was built to withstand category 5 hurricanes. On Wednesday, as SpaceX rolled out the Falcon 9 with X-37B toward the pad, it rolled in a previously recovered Falcon 9 to prep it for reflight next month. It’s getting crowded in there: Two other rockets that will make up the much-anticipated triple-booster Falcon Heavy are already inside the hangar. Elon Musk claims the Heavy will be the most powerful rocket in operation, and the company is targeting November for its first test flight.