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As Hurricane Dorian threatens Space Coast, NASA, SpaceX and ULA work to secure their launch pads

National Hurricane Center forecasts set Hurricane Dorian as a category 4 Hurricane and predict Dorian will arrive to Florida over Labor Day weekend. (National Hurricane Center/Released)

On the Space Coast, where some models put Hurricane Dorian touching land early next week, teams at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are working to secure multi-million-dollar equipment ahead of the storm.

A major storm slamming the space center facilities head-on would be a first. Past storms have come close — damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 cost KSC millions of dollars in repairs and Hurricane Frances in 2004 toppled a Mercury-Redstone rocket at KSC’s credentialing center and tore off panels from the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, for example.

At Kennedy Space Center, teams began to move the $650 million mobile launcher, which is the steel ground structure that attaches to a rocket for preparations and launch, early Friday morning. The structure was at launch pad 39B and where it will later be used to launch NASA’s upcoming rocket, the Space Launch System, and astronaut capsule Orion for upcoming missions to the moon.

KSC is moving the launcher to the Vehicle Assembly Building, the windowless fortress where NASA assembles rockets. The VAB can withstand winds of about 125 mph, or a Category 3 hurricane.

For the move, the 400-foot tall mobile launcher was placed on a massive, 6.6 million-pound crawler transporter, used to move spacecraft to launch pads, for the 1-mph trip to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

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The crawler began the eight-hour, four-mile roll out to pad 39B Wednesday morning just in case, and by Thursday afternoon KSC said it had decided it would in fact move the mobile launcher and store it in the VAB. The launcher should arrive at the VAB by 2 p.m.

Kennedy Space Center, as well as the Visitor Center, will close Sunday.

“We will continue to monitor the weather throughout the preparations and roll operations and should there be a significant change, our team will be poised to adjust,” said KSC spokeswoman Amanda Griffin. The launch control center, where a KSC team will ride out the storm, can withstand Category 5 hurricane winds.

At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the 45th Space Wing issued a HURCON IV alert Thursday, signaling a forecast that calls for sustained winds of 58 mph or greater arriving in the area within 72 hours. The Wing is preparing for potential evacuations of the base and the barrier islands, while teams continue preparing the facilities for Dorian’s potential arrival.

Many of the Cape’s facility expect to close after their normal hours of operation end on Thursday.

As of Friday, Dorian had strengthened with 110 mph winds, according to the National Hurricane Center, with a trajectory that could potentially put the storm, as a Category 4 hurricane, on the East Coast by early next week.

At SpaceX, the company has started to move its fleet of rocket recovery vehicles away from the Space Coast.

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GO Searcher, the recovery vessel for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut capsule, left Port Canaveral Wednesday night, followed by GO Quest, the support ship to SpaceX’s “Of Course I Still Love You,” which catches rocket boosters after launch. The “Of Course I Still Love You” barge was still at port Thursday morning, but GO Ms. Chief, the rocket launch provider’s payload fairing catcher, had left Port Canaveral Thursday morning for safer waters.

United Launch Alliance, meanwhile, said it is working closely with the 45th Space Wing to plan its hurricane preparation and damage mitigation procedures. The company’s facilities are built to withstand hurricane-force winds, said spokeswoman Heather McFarland.

For example, launch pad 41 is designed to withstand winds of 135 mph, or up to a Category 3 hurricane, while launch pad 37 can stand in Category 4 winds of up to 140 mph.

“Our design processes include additional factors on top of those wind loads, such that we would expect our systems to be likely capable of withstanding higher winds without suffering major damage,” McFarland said.

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© 2019 The Orlando Sentinel