Hurricane Floyd: Space shuttles abandoned by fleeing staff

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The Independent Online
THE PRIDE of the US space programme was all but abandoned last night after a shift northwards by Hurricane Floyd put Cape Canaveral and the $8bn fleet of space shuttles in its expected path. Officials feared that the most potent symbol of man's technological might could yet be flattened by encroaching forces of nature.

All staff, except for a skeleton crew of 125, were evacuated from the Kennedy Space Centre yesterday, effectively leaving the programme to the mercy of the hurricane.

The four shuttles, each valued at $2bn, are housed in hangers designed to withstand winds of 125 mph. But the approaching hurricane is expected to bring winds of 155 mph, placing the space craft and associated facilities at serious risk. Several scenarios for the course of the storm have it making a direct hit on Cape Canaveral or coming "so close to the coast it would count as landfall," said Max Mayfield, deputy director of the National Hurricane Centre. "We are hoping for the best,"said a NASA spokesman, George Diller, before fleeing the site.

At the neighbouring Cape Canaveral Air Station, four unmanned rockets worth $628m were left standing on launch pads with no time to remove them before ground crews were also ordered to evacuate. If the eye of the storm stays about 25 miles off Cape Canaveral, as many meteorologists predict, that would spare Florida the worst of the winds. But residents of the oceanside city of Cocoa Beach on Cape Canaveral were taking no chances yesterday, with most of the housing areas deserted and many of the store windows boarded up.

Among the ships evacuated from Mayport naval base, north of Jacksonville, Florida, was the Royal Fleet Auxilliary Gold Rover, a British refuelling tanker, whose role is to support the Royal Navy's West Indies guard vessel, currently the frigate HMS Northumberland. The plan is to return to Mayport by the weekend. "But the trouble is, will there be a port to return to? It might get wiped out," said Captain Chris Knapp, of the Gold Rover.