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Space Center building gets lashing from storm

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Hurricane Frances did more damage to the Kennedy Space Center than any other storm in history, tearing an estimated 1,000 exterior panels from a giant building where space vehicles are assembled, officials said yesterday.

No space shuttles were inside the 525-foot-high building, a familiar landmark at the space center. But the center's director, James Kennedy, said he feared the damage could set back NASA's effort to resume shuttle launches next spring.

Yesterday marked the first time anyone from NASA had seen the damage from the storm because the agency completely evacuated the space center -- the first time NASA has made such a move.

The holes left by the missing panels created 40,000 square feet of ''open window" on two sides of the building, Kennedy said. Each panel measures 4 feet by 10 feet.

Kennedy said it was too soon to provide a dollar figure for all the damage. Hurricane Charley three weeks earlier caused $700,000 worth of damage, and this will be ''significantly more," he said.

But Kennedy expressed relief that the space center had been spared a direct hit by a storm that was once a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 miles per hour.

The storm made landfall early Sunday at Sewall's Point, about 100 miles south of the space center. The facility endured sustained winds of more than 70 miles per hour, and gusts reached 94 miles per hour at the peak of the storm, Kennedy told reporters in a telephone conference from Crystal City, Va.

Nonetheless, the initial feeling of the 200 employees inside the space center yesterday was ''that we had dodged a big bullet," Kennedy said. ''I was significantly worried about the future of human space flight based upon that doomsday scenario" of a direct hit by a hurricane with at least Category 4 force, he said.

Kennedy is especially worried about Hurricane Ivan out in the Atlantic. His emergency team inside the space center already has warned him that temporary repairs to the assembly building may not be possible in time for Ivan.

Yesterday's preliminary look indicates that the shuttle hangars and the spaceships themselves, grounded since last year's Columbia disaster, were not damaged at all, Kennedy said. Neither was the building that houses the international space station parts awaiting launch.

Workers had yet to inspect the two shuttle launch pads, located on the beach.

But in a potential blow to NASA's effort to resume flights, part of the roof came off the building where the shuttles' thermal tiles are made. The silica glass fiber tiles cover much of the exterior of each spaceship and protect against the heat of re-entry. There was extensive water damage inside that structure, Kennedy said.

Inside the Vehicle Assembly Building were two shuttle external fuel tanks, which officials are hoping were protected from the rain, Kennedy said.

The Vehicle Assembly Building was built to accommodate the giant Apollo rocket ships that carried men to the moon. Construction began in 1963. Although the building was designed to withstand sustained wind of 114 miles per hour and gusts of up to 125, it had begun to deteriorate in places during the 1990s, especially the roof.

The space center, most of it still without power and phone service, remained evacuated except for the emergency inspection team, and the other 14,000 employees were urged to stay home today, too. The center was closed Thursday.

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