Mother Nature Will Not be Denied: Hurricanes and the Future of Space Flight

Climate change is a hot topic, and many are concerned about how it is affecting the world we live in. But how is it influencing the way we look at the world outside our atmosphere? Rising ocean temperatures can lead to stronger hurricanes, and the United States’ most valuable space asset is being threatened. Mother nature won’t be denied, so how can the American space industry prepare for the inevitable?

As Floridians on the east coast of the U.S. flooded grocery stores for water and food in preparation for the oncoming storm, Hurricane Dorian grew swiftly from a manageable Category 1 hurricane into a Category 5 heading straight for eastern Florida. Cape Canaveral Air Force Base and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) began their emergency preparations. As the U.S. held its breath awaiting the landfall of Hurricane Dorian, we watched in horror as it fell over the Bahamas and came to a standstill. The islands took a continual beating with rain, debris, and sustained winds of 185 mph tearing the islands’ structure apart. Florida, in the end, received little more than rain.

The United States let out a breath of relief, but one question weighed on the minds of officials in the aerospace industry: “What if?”

The U.S. space industry is not immune to the risks of natural disasters or climate change. These risks are growing, and the space economy will suffer greatly should a storm hit. It is crucial to understand these risks and how to prepare for the inevitable.

The Looming Predicament

“Nobody in their right mind thought that Hurricane Dorian would sit there and pummel the Bahamas for two days with 200 mph winds. It’s just unheard of,” says former assistant administrator for research and development at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Dr. Norine Noonan. “The previous thinking was that these very large hurricanes simply could not maintain the intensity of 180 or 200 mph winds over long periods of time because they would simply implode.”

What we thought we knew about hurricanes is being challenged. They’re becoming stronger, they’re lasting longer, and their lifetime maximum intensity is shifting northward. While it’s a common misconception that hurricanes in general are becoming more frequent, there isn’t any evidence to support that claim. But what is happening, according to Dr. Carl Schreck — an affiliate at NOAA who has been studying hurricane data for over 10 years — is that hurricanes aren’t becoming more frequent: hurricanes are getting stronger.

What’s causing these increasing intensities? The short, two-worded answer is climate change. For a hurricane to form, ocean water needs to be at least 27 degrees Celsius for 50 meters below the ocean surface. Hurricanes get their energy from warm water, but the intensity of a storm depends on the difference between that ocean temperature and the temperature at the tropopause 7 miles above the surface of the earth. “It does seem like the warming at the surface, especially the Atlantic, is happening faster than what’s happening further up,” Schreck comments.

Let’s step back in time to see how hurricanes have affected defense and space in the past: Labor Day Weekend, 2004. Hurricane Frances barreled into the east coast of Florida as a Category 2 storm and shredded apart the coast for two days. The storm caused $9 billion dollars in damages. At KSC, two buildings on site had their roofs lifted by the winds. The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) had its siding ripped open, causing damage not only to the VAB, but also the rockets, satellites, and aircraft that were stored inside for protection.

Just three weeks later, Hurricane Jeanne, the deadliest storm of 2004, came through Florida’s east coast with windspeeds of 120 mph. The VAB again was damaged, compounding the damage done by Frances just weeks earlier. The total cost of damages done to KSC in 2004 was $123 million.

According to KSC Emergency Manager Wayne Kee, “The storm peeled the siding of the VAB off like it was an onion; it was a very hazardous situation.” After these two storms, the facilities at both Cape Canaveral AFB and KSC were shut down for three weeks for damage repairs.

On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael hits the contiguous U.S. as the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall since 1992, and the damages were heartbreaking. Although Michael only held Category 5 status for just under an hour, it caused a total of $25 billion in damages, $5 billion of which was attributed to the destruction at Tyndall AFB.

Tyndall AFB was nearly obliterated by Hurricane Michael. Air Force officials described the damage to the base as "catastrophic," with all the base's facilities being declared "unlivable.” Billions of dollars’ worth of stealth jets and aircraft were destroyed, and 11,000 individuals became homeless within the base alone. Tyndall was a massive employer, with 3,600 employed personnel on site shortly before Michael made landfall, and the Air Force is to this day thinking very seriously about how much of the base to rebuild.

Dangers to Defense, Civil, and Commercial

According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) release of the 2020 Fiscal Year Budget Proposal, the unclassified budget request for national security space was $14.1 billion. NASA’s civilian space budget was given in their Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal, which asked for roughly $22 billion. SpaceX is valued at $33 billion, and has a center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Blue Origin has massive facilities a few hundred meters away from KSC, and successful new start up OneWeb Satellites just opened their new satellite factory in Cape Canaveral. Each of these startups has received hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital and investments, and their potential worth is in the billions of dollars, just as SpaceX is valued.

The damages that can be done to the cape are not trivial to any of the space sectors, be it defense, civil, or commercial. If a storm were to destroy launch capabilities, not only would the physical damages cost just as much as any one of these sectors’ yearly budget, but that budget would not be able to be invested into the progression of the United States’ space capital — whether it be in improving defense capabilities, bringing in money through commercial ventures, or learning more about the universe we live in through civil missions. The opportunity cost of being unable to launch important space missions is too great to not consider the risks at hand.

Kee has overseen emergency protocols at KSC since 1991. Every hurricane to pass by Cape Canaveral in the past 20 years has been closely watched by him, and he was on sight when the 2004 storms tore apart KSC facilities and the VAB. Despite having seen millions of dollars of damages done firsthand, Kee says “if a storm even half the energy generated by Dorian in the Bahamas had hit us here, you wouldn’t have been looking at three weeks or three months to get facilities open again. You may have been looking at years. It would have been devastating.” The damages at Cape Canaveral and KSC would closely mirror those at Tyndall AFB if a Category 4 or 5 were to hit the cape. “It would just wreak havoc; I don’t even want to think about it.”

The commercial space industry is in more danger than any other sector. With investments in these companies being delivered on a basis of performance, launching products is essential. One missed deadline could mean the end of funding streams for a startup. Space defense may be delayed, putting our country in danger until launch services are functioning again, but there will always be government budget available to get defense space back on its feet. If the launch delay is longer than even a few months, though, we could start to see the economic dominoes of commercial space start to fall.

Imagine Cape Canaveral is unable to open for an undetermined period of time. There are no launches scheduled. Launch providers must put their production on hold. This results in potentially large-scale layoffs in Florida as well as Alabama, California, Colorado, and Washington where many of these companies have headquarters and factories. No satellites can go into orbit. Any company involved in producing satellite components will see sales plummet, potentially running businesses into the ground. The loss of launch capabilities could have an impact on the larger U.S. economy, as well as bringing an end to the massive leaps we’ve made in privatizing space.

Prepare Now for Disaster

The best way to handle any emergency is to be prepared. At KSC, Kee and his team send out a warning message to their entire work force 72 hours before a hurricane could hit the coast. Any winds above 58 mph elicits the emergency protocol be enacted. The team of emergency responders at KSC consists of 120 people, including engineers, technicians, and scientists. These personnel stay at KSC in the flight control room, which is built to withstand windspeeds of over 120 mph, moderating the important assets on site that are required to be in a specific environment, whether that be humidity or temperature control. They also act as the first responders once the storm passes over, ensuring that the roads to the facilities can be opened and damages that were done by the storm can be addressed as quickly as possible.

By improving hurricane predictions, more than 72 hours can be provided to prepare for the storm. If both track and intensity predictions can become more accurate, resources can be focused solely on the areas in danger of being hit by high intensity storms. Schreck notes that the biggest game changers in the hurricane tracking field have been satellite technologies, including putting microwave imagers on satellites to see under the clouds of the storm and wind scatterometers to monitor the ocean surface. “Hurricanes are getting stronger, they’re definitely getting wetter, and they’re getting more storm surge as you have a higher sea level. Anything we can do to measure that with satellite data is going to be very valuable to society,” he says.

Earth’s climate is changing at accelerated rates, and we can’t depend on government powers to solve this problem. Massive commercial companies, especially the large launch providers, hold a huge stake in whether Cape Canaveral continues to function as a launch sight. Government agencies are held back by restriction and administration where private companies have freedom. Perhaps these private companies can initiate a conversation, or urge sit downs with NASA and the defense space sector to discuss what is in the realm of the possible in terms of preparing for what has already started. We are beyond the time where we can realistically think about reversing the impacts we’ve made. Dr. Noonan summed it up perfectly, “We have to mitigate where we can and adapt where we must. Mother Nature will not be denied. That is the reality of where we are.”

The Department of Defense claims, “Long-term strategic competition is the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and national security. Space is a key arena of this competition.” Without the assets at Cape Canaveral and KSC, we can’t have eyes in the sky.

The long-term threats climate change represents not only transcends administrations, but generations as well. Sectors must band together to protect and support the delicate balance of the space industry. The enterprise we’ve been building for decades should be passed to rising generations to be further developed — not hauled from the rubble of ruins.

The Rising Seas

Sea level rise is the most dangerous and eminent side effect of our changing climate to space and defense installations. The rising of oceans may seem like a slow and manageable process, but we’re frogs in boiling water, and we won’t know the severity of the outcome until it’s too late.

According to the U.S. Air Force, sea level risk poses the most danger to Patrick AFB, home of the 45th space wing. There are currently four active launchpads on Patrick AFB, which is just 12 miles south of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Airmen at Patrick AFB manage all uncrewed launches out of Cape Canaveral. Patrick AFB is also only 18 feet above sea level. If ocean levels were to rise even a few feet, damages to the islands structure would take hold in just years.

When the inescapable power of hurricanes is mixed with the inevitable rise of sea levels, damages to anything in their path will be unimaginable. There has already been 20 square miles of land lost along the east coast to just sea level rise alone. Combined with hurricanes and dangerous flooding, land will disappear into the ocean faster than we can keep up with, and the barrier islands that launch our most important space missions will be eaten by the waters. VS

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