Since 2004, NASA has been working on the launch system that will send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. These efforts bore fruit in 2011 with the proposed Space Launch System (SLS), the heaviest and most powerful rocket since the Saturn V. Paired with the Orion spacecraft, this vehicle will be the workhorse of a new space architecture that would establish a program of sustained lunar exploration and even crewed missions to Mars.
Due to repeated delays, cost overruns, and the expedited timeframe for Project Artemis, there have been serious doubts that the SLS will be ready in time. Luckily, ground crews and engineers at NASA’s Launch Control Center (LCC) – part of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – recently finished stacking the Artemis I mission. The vehicle is now in the final phase of preparations for this uncrewed circumlunar flight in February 2022.
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station military forces partially reopened certain critical runways hours after Irma swept by the space coast to assist in emergency recovery operations.
“Kennedy Space Center will resume normal operations Saturday, Sept. 16,” NASA announced. “The “All Clear” has been given to reopen.”
NASA’s world famous Vehicle Assembly Building and the Space Coast launch pads are still standing – as seen in photos from myself and more from NASA.
“As you’ve all seen by now, the Center will be open for normal operations at midnight tonight, and we’ll be ready to get back into the full swing of things Monday morning,” KSC Center Director Bob Cabana said in a message to employees.
Hurricane Irma knocked out water and power to KSC, the Cape, the visitor complex and the barrier islands including Merritt Island which is home to America’s premier Spaceport.
Wind speeds at KSC “varied from 67-94 mph (59-82 knots) at the 54-foot level to 90-116 mph (79-101 knots) at the 458-foot level during the storm.”
“The storm did delay the next launches,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing, at a media briefing.
“We think the next launch will be approximately the first week of October.”
However although there was damage to a numerous buildings, both the spacecraft and rockets are safe and sound.
“The spacecraft we have on station right now are healthy and are being monitored.”
“The seven rocket boosters [Atlas, Falcon, Delta IV Heavy] we have on the Cape rode out the storm just fine,” Montieth elaborated.
The base and the visitor complex both lacked potable water service used for drinking, food preparation and cleaning.
Multiple water pipes in the nearby community of Cocoa were severed. KSC, the Cape and the Visitor Center as well as the surrounding community were under a boil water restriction for several days.
“Full water service is now available and the center has received an all clear following several days of closure related to Hurricane Irma,” noted KSC officials.
Indeed over 87% of customers lost power in Brevard County – home to the Florida Space Coast. Over 2/3 of customers lost power throughout Florida- impacting over 16 million people.
A number of popular public launch viewing locations were also severely damaged or destroyed as I witnessed personally driving in Titusville around just hours after Irma fled north.
See my photos from Rotary River Front Park, Space View Park and others along Rt. 1 in Titusville – which had offered unimpeded, spectacular and beautiful views across the Indian Rover lagoon to the KSC and Cape Canaveral launch pads.
Piers, docks, walkways, parking areas, piping and more were ripped up, smashed, sunken and devastated with piles of metal, bricks, wood, trees, bushes, trash and more scattered about in sad and unrecognizable heaps.
From a distance of several miles, the iconic VAB and the launch pads themselves did not seem to suffer obvious destruction – see my photos herein.
As of today over 500,000 customers across Florida remain without power, including tens of thousands in central Florida.
Numerous traffic lights in Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and Melbourne and other Brevard County and central Florida cities and communities are still not functioning today – creating all sorts of road traffic hazards!
Damage assessment teams from NASA, ULA, SpaceX, the USAF and contractors are now carefully scrutinizing every aspect of the Space Coast launch pads and facilities to ensure successful liftoffs whenever they resume in a few weeks.
Virtually all traffic lights were not operating and businesses and gas stations were closed in the hours before and after Irma pummeled communities across the space coast and central Florida. There were very long lines at the first gas stations that did reopen on Monday and Tuesday.
KSC was closed and evacuated of all personnel during the storm, except for only a small ‘Ride-out’ team of roughly 130 or so KSC personnel based inside the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) inside the Launch Control Center. They remained on site to monitor spaceport facilities.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank—and commend—the Ride-out and Damage Assessment and Recovery Teams for the outstanding job they did watching over the Center in our absence and getting it ready for our return in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma,” Cabana added. “I also want to thank all of you for the outstanding job that you did in getting the Center ready for the hurricane. As a result of your efforts, the Center was well prepared for the storm.”
The Damage Assessment and Recovery Teams explained that “the industrial and Launch Complex 39 areas have been inspected and are safe for personnel to return to work. This includes the KSC Child Development Center and all administrative work areas.”
“All facility systems including communication, power, and air conditioning are functional.”
Montieth confirmed damage to many buildings.
“In an initial assessment of the Cape facilities, about 40 % of buildings we inspected so far have received some damage. So 107 of 216 buildings at the Cape inspected have already been identified with damage.
“Lots of roof and siding damage, Montieth explained on Sept. 13. “We haven’t inspected the beaches yet.
“We have water issues at the Cape. We need water for the chillers to cool the operational buildings.”
Luckily the damage from Irma was less than feared.
“Under Hurricane Matthew there was about $50 million worth of damage between us and our launch partners. We think it will be less this time for Irma but we have a lot more work to do,” noted Montieth.
“The storm wasn’t as bad as expected. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst and that’s what we did. We had a ride-out team on base in a secure facility. Irma traveling over land helped us out. But we still got hit here by over 90 MPH winds gusts and over 58 mph winds – which are hurricane category 1 winds.”
“We also got hit by what we believe are 3 probable small tornadoes that hit the base. That claim is up to the NWS.”
He noted that the X-37B was launched successfully last Friday by SpaceX and that ongoing hurricane preparations and evacuations went to full swing right afterward the morning blastoff.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
In order to get a better idea of the implications of the 2018 NASA budget proposal for KSC, I spoke one-on-one with Robert Cabana – one of NASA’s top officials, who currently serves as Director of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as well as being a former astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander. Cabana is a veteran of four space shuttle missions.
How did NASA and KSC fare with the newly announced 2018 Budget?
“We at KSC and NASA as a whole did very well with the 2018 budget,” KSC Director Robert Cabana explained during an interview with Universe Today by the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida.
“I think it really solidifies that the President has confidence in us, on the path that we are on,” Cabana noted while attending a student robotics competition at KSCVC sponsored by NASA.
“With only a 1 percent cut – when you look at what other agency’s got cut – this budget allows us to stay on the path that we are on.”
Trump cut NASA’s 2018 budget request by $0.5 Billion compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 budget of $19.6 Billion approved by the US Congress and signed by the President.
Other Federal science agency’s also critically vital to the health of US scientific research such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST suffered terrible double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.
KSC is the focal point for NASA’s human spaceflight programs currently under intense development by NASA – namely the Space Launch System (SLS) Mars megarocket, the Orion deep space crew capsule to be launched beyond Earth orbit (BEO) atop SLS, and the duo of Commercial Crew Program (CCP) space taxis being manufactured by Boeing and SpaceX that will ferry our astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS).
Numerous NASA science missions also launch from the Florida Space Coast.
“At KSC the budget keeps us on a path that continues to provide a commercial crew vehicle to fly crews to the ISS in 2018,” Cabana stated.
“The budget also keeps us on track to launch SLS and Orion in 2019.”
“I think that’s really important – along with all the other stuff we are doing here at KSC.”
“From our point of view it’s a good budget. We need to press ahead and continue on with what we promised.”
What’s ahead for commercial crew at KSC?
“We are moving forward with commercial crew,” Cabana told me.
“Within the next calendar year  we are moving ahead with flying the first certification flight with crew to the ISS. So that’s test flights and by the end of the year an actual crewed flight to the ISS. I want to see that happen.”
Industry partners Boeing and SpaceX are building the private CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships respectively, as part of NASA’s commercial crew initiative aimed at restoring America’s human spaceflight capability to launch our astronauts aboard American spaceships on American rockets from American soil.
Commercial Crew is a public/private partnership initiative with commercial contracts valued at $4.2 Billion and signed by Boeing and SpaceX with NASA in September 2014 under the Obama Administration.
The goal of commercial crew is to end our sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronaut flights to the space station since the retirement of the space shuttles back in 2011 – by manufacturing indigenous rockets and human rated spaceships.
However the CCP program suffered severe budget reductions by the US Congress for several years which forced significant work stretch-outs and delays in the maiden crew launches by both companies from 2015 to 2018 – and thus forced additional payments to the Russians for Soyuz seat purchases.
Both the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon crew vehicles can carry 4 or more astronauts to the ISS. This will enable NASA to add another crew member and thereby enlarge the ISS crew from 6 to 7 permanent residents after they become operational.
Meanwhile NASA is focusing on developing the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion crew capsule with prime contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin in an agency wide effort to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.
The European Space Agency(ESA) is also partnered with NASA and providing the service module for Orion.
What’s the status of the delivery of the European Space Agency’s service module?
“The service module will be here sometime next year,” Cabana said.
He noted that the details and exact timing are yet to be determined.
The first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the unpiloted Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is now slated for sometime in 2019 after NASA recently slipped the date to the right from Fall 2018.
I asked Cabana for his insight and opinion on NASA not adding crew to Orion on the EM-1 flight.
“No we are not launching crew on the first flight [EM-1],” Cabana stated.
“With the budget that we have and what we need to do, this is the answer we got to at the end.”
“You know the crew study was still very important. It allowed us to find some things that we should still do on [EM-1], even though we are not going to launch crew on that flight.
“So we will make some further modifications that will reduce the risk even further when we do fly crew [on the next flight of EM-2].”
So for 2017 what are the major milestone you hope to complete here at KSC for SLS and Orion?
“So for me here at the Kennedy Space Center, my goal for the end of this calendar year 2017 we will have completed all of the construction of all of the [ground systems] hardware and facilities that are necessary to process and launch the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion,” Cabana elaborated.
‘We will still have a lot of work to do with the software for the spacecraft command and control systems and the ground systems.”
“But my goal is to have the hardware for the ground systems complete by the end of this year.”
What are those KSC facilities?
“Those facilities include the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] which will be complete to accept the mobile launcher in September and pad 39B will be complete in August,” Cabana said.
“The RPSF is already complete. The NPFF is already complete and we are doing testing in there. The LASF [Launch Abort System Facility] is complete – where they put the abort rocket on.”
“The Mobile Launcher will be complete from a structural point of view, with all the systems installed by the end of the year [including the umbilical’s and while room].”
Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-11 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about the SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:
May 30/31: “SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings