SpaceX squeezes in one last launch before an advancing Hurricane Irma

click to enlarge SpaceX squeezes in one last launch before an advancing Hurricane Irma
Photo by Robin Seemangal

Weather conditions for the launch stood in stark contrast for what is to hit the coast this weekend.

SpaceX successfully carried out another mission for the US military on Thursday afternoon from one of Hurricane Irma’s most vulnerable targets in its path along Florida’s east coast. The classified mission was the second attempt to launch the Department of Defense’s fifth Orbital Test Vehicle into low-earth orbit.

A Falcon 9 rocket took off from Launch Complex 39A and returned for a ground landing on Patrick Air Force Base, as NASA’s Kennedy Space Center went into a HURCON III mode in anticipation of Hurricane Irma. HURCON is a hurricane alert scale used by the Air Force and NASA, and a phase three is the second of four courses of action taken before a mega-storm.

Sitting on the rocket was a another rocket, sort of.

The US Air Force and the Department of Defense has a fleet of Orbital Test Vehicles (OTV), and today’s launch just put their fifth one into low earth orbit. The contents of this small vehicle is classified, and it will likely stay floating in Earth’s outer atmosphere for a little over two years.

The weather conditions for the launch was surprisingly calm and clear. No trace of Irma was evident, even though Cape Canaveral and the entire bottom half of Florida is expected to get railed by a record-setting category 5 hurricane. Merritt Island, where this OTV-5 mission took off from, is expected to get hit with category 3 winds later this weekend.

Models from the National Hurricane Center predict Irma to scrape the east coast of Florida until it reaches the Titusville area, where it will then veer off into the Atlantic. The 400-mile-wide hurricane is still hazardous even with the center of the storm far off into the ocean.

Despite NASA’s HURCON procedures, much of the agency’s infrastructure is vulnerable to unusually strong wind speeds. The iconic Vehicle Assembly Building can only withstand a maximum of 125 mph winds. If Irma sustains its strength as a category 5, that means the VAB may see extensive damage from wind speeds of over 150 mph.

Most facilities at NASA, including SpaceX’s current infrastructure, is in the clear, and officials don’t expect much damage. Since SpaceX is on a 20-year lease with NASA to use the 39A launch facilities, it’s relationship with the agency in times of natural disasters is analogous to the average tenant-landlord relationships in common residential contracts. NASA is responsible for reinforcing all of its leased facilities to withstand hurricane force winds.

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