CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA's four space shuttles were at risk as the agency braced Monday for Hurricane Floyd, a storm powerful enough to wipe out its launch pads and hangars.
All of the shuttles are in hangars. But the buildings are designed to withstand wind of no more than 105 mph to 125 mph. Floyd was packing top sustained winds of 155 mph wind as of Monday afternoon.
"We're going to live and hope -- that's what it's going to take," NASA spokesman George Diller said as Kennedy Space Center's approximately 12,500 workers began evacuating.
Even if the hurricane skirts the central Florida coast and passes 35 miles offshore, forecasters have warned Kennedy Space Center to expect 150 mph wind on Wednesday.
"We're just hoping that it stays farther offshore to make it a little easier for us," Diller said. "But it's not going to be a good situation in any event."
Barring a change in the hurricane's course, NASA planned to close down the Kennedy Space Center by midnight Monday, leaving behind a skeleton crew. On Tuesday, managers will decide whether to keep the crew there to ride out the storm; the workers would leave if the wind is as fierce as predicted.
The center is only 9 feet above sea level, so a storm surge as well as wind could be devastating.
"If it's a direct hit on us, or even a skirting hit, we could lose a great deal, and a ride-out crew's not going to help you," said Bruce Buckingham, another NASA spokesman.
This would be the first complete evacuation ever of Kennedy Space Center. A skeleton crew remained behind when the place was evacuated for Hurricane Erin in 1995.
Unable to be moved in a hurry like NASA's $2 billion shuttles, four multimillion-dollar rockets remained on launch pads at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Station. The rockets were being secured to their pads, with protective towers placed around them. In addition, loose objects such as electric generators were being removed to keep them from becoming projectiles.
The Air Force launch towers are built to withstand wind up to 120 mph. NASA's two shuttle launch pads can take wind up to 125 mph.
Air Force officials planned to evacuate all 10,000 workers at Cape Canaveral Air Station and Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach.
At Kennedy, technicians closed the cargo-bay doors of each shuttle and bagged the main engines on the tail to protect against water damage.
The landing gear was also raised on the three shuttles in the Orbital Processing Facility, designed to withstand wind of up to 105 mph. On Atlantis, parked in the Vehicle Assembly Building, the landing gear was covered with plastic bags. Its gear could not be raised because Atlantis was resting on its wheels.
The 525-foot-high Vehicle Assembly Building, where shuttles are attached to their booster rockets and external fuel tanks, can withstand wind of up to 125 mph.
NASA expected the preparations -- not to mention any damage or destruction -- to delay upcoming shuttle flights, already postponed by wiring defects. Discovery is supposed to fly at the end of October on a repair trip to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Endeavour is set for lifotoff in November on an Earth-mapping mission.
The last time that Kennedy Space Center had to go through such drastic precautions was for Erin in 1995. In 1996, Hurricanes Bertha and Fran forced NASA to move Atlantis from the launch pad into the hangar, but no evacuation was ordered.
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