As Nicole strengthens to potential hurricane, NASA and Space Force prep for storm surge

‘We are preparing like every other Floridian, just at a different scale,’ officials say

The Artemis I moon rocket on Launch Pad 39 B at Kennedy Space Center (NASA)

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – With Florida firmly in the crosshairs of Hurricane Nicole, teams across Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station are preparing facilities – and the massive moon-bound Artemis I rocket – for the still-strengthening storm as it bears down on the Space Coast.

Nicole, which was forecast to strengthen to Category 1 hurricane status just before making landfall south of Brevard County, is different from September’s Hurricane Ian: this time, storm surge has a real possibility of causing flooding and damages across the spaceport. Infrastructure critical to Florida’s rapid launch cadence is largely exposed.

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Nothing exemplifies exposed spaceflight hardware more than pad 39B at KSC, where NASA’s Artemis I moon rocket will ride out the storm outside its typical shelter in the Vehicle Assembly Building some four miles away. Officials opted not to roll the multibillion-dollar rocket back to the VAB – a process that takes multiple days of work – since it’s rated to handle winds up to 85 mph. That’s solidly in Category 1 territory, which runs from 74 to 95 mph.

Officials also lacked ample time to make a call on rollback as Nicole suddenly strengthened over the weekend; plus, it had just completed rollout early Friday. As of Tuesday evening, NASA confirmed it would delay the Space Launch System rocket’s liftoff to no earlier than 1:04 a.m. EST Wednesday, Nov. 16, due to Nicole.

“Based on expected weather conditions and options to roll back ahead of the storm, the agency determined Sunday evening the safest option for the launch hardware was to keep the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft secured at the pad,” NASA said in a statement. “Current forecasts predict the greatest risks at the pad are high winds that are not expected to exceed the SLS design.”

“The rocket is designed to withstand heavy rains at the launch pad and the spacecraft hatches have been secured to prevent water intrusion,” NASA said.

So far, teams at the Cape and KSC have entered into HURCON III status, meaning tropical storm-force winds are expected within 48 hours. Nicole’s first tropical-storm force winds were expected as early as 8 a.m. Wednesday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The NHC also predicts a dangerous storm surge, or the rise in water above the usual tide level at a certain time, will threaten a swath of the Southeast from Florida to Georgia. It could add up to five feet of water above the usual level through Thursday morning.

“A dangerous storm surge from Nicole is expected along much of the east coast of Florida and portions of coastal Georgia where a storm surge warning is in effect,” the NHC said Tuesday. “The surge will be accompanied by large and damaging waves.”

The Space Coast’s launch pads and surrounding infrastructure are, like much of Florida, low-lying and at risk of flooding. Though some major pads like 39B are elevated, launch operations won’t be able to continue if water blocks off access.

A tool developed by scientists at Climate Central, a nonprofit that communicates climate change-related science, effects, and solutions, shows even a few feet of water increases could inundate much of the spaceport. The tool allows a user to input a water level increase above the high tide line, then see its impacts on a map.

According to the Coastal Risk Screening Tool, an additional five feet of water brought on by Nicole would bring significant flooding to the Cape and KSC – if it’s at the time of high tide. Almost everything west of the Vehicle Assembly Building, which sits roughly in the middle, would be underwater, though all the pads on the east side would fare better. There could still be flooding uncomfortably close to critical roadways that lead employees, hardware, and other personnel to the pads.

A five-foot surge would largely surround pad 39B and 39A – operated by SpaceX under lease from NASA – with water. The center of both pads sit about a half-mile from the Atlantic Ocean.

Other facilities, like Space Florida’s Launch Complex 46 (Cape) and the Launch and Landing Facility (KSC), are more exposed. The agency is the state’s aerospace finance and development authority.

“We are preparing like every other Floridian, just at a different scale,” Anna Alexopoulos Farrar, vice president of corporate communications at Space Florida, told News 6 partner FLORIDA TODAY. “We’ll do things like sandbags to protect against any sort of flooding, locking the doors, and securing anything loose that could become projectiles.”

In some ways, preparing a launch pad for hurricane impacts can be easier than preparing other facilities like homes and office buildings. LC-46 sits close to the water but Farrar says it, like many of the spaceport’s other pads, is slightly elevated and away from beach sand to protect against flooding and erosion.

“The good news is these launch pads were designed and built to withstand Florida weather and also built to withstand a rocket launch. They are robust in nature,” Farrar said.

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