NASA Closes Johnson Space Center as Hurricane Approaches
The forecast for Hurricane Rita predicts its landfall somewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast on Sept. 24, 2005.
Credit: NOAA/NHC.

This story was updated at 2:12 p.m. EDT.

NASA officials at the agency's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston closed the manned spaceflight facility Wednesday as Hurricane Rita approaches the Texas Gulf Coast.

The closure went into effect at 2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) and will continue until the hurricane threat has passed, NASA officials said, adding that a small emergency crew will remain onsite. Primary mission operations of the International Space Station (ISS), now orbiting more than 200 miles above the Earth, will be handed over to Russian flight controllers while the JSC site is closed, they added.

"The emergency plan for the ISS mission control is well understood," NASA spokesperson James Hartsfield told SPACE.com before the closure.

Hartsfield said that, once implemented, the transfer of mission operations from NASA ISS flight controllers to their Russian counterparts in Korolev, Russia near Moscow could continue through the evening.

"We also have an advisory team of flight controllers who will evacuate to a remote location and provide assistance," he added.

Flying aboard the ISS are Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips, who are wrapping up a six-month mission onboard. The station crew has been informed of the preparations, NASA officials said.

As of 11:00 a.m. EDT, Hurricane Rita was Category 4 hurricane with winds blowing at an estimated maximum speed of about 140 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) reported.

The hurricane was centered at about 260 miles west of Key West, Florida and 775 miles east of Corpus Christi, Texas, with its landfall anticipated Saturday as at least a Category 3 storm, NHC forecasters reported.

Hartsfield said JSC implemented its "liberal leave" policy, allowing personnel extra time to prepare their homes and families for the hurricane's arrival, before the JSC closure.

About 3,000 civil servants and up to 12,000 contractors work at JSC, NASA officials said.

Additional hurricane preparations at JSC included the relocation of NASA aircraft to El Paso, Texas, as well as measures to safeguard important documents and equipment from the storm.

Hurricane Rita is the second major hurricane facing NASA in recent weeks.

In late August, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, devastating New Orleans, Louisiana and the Mississippi coast.

That storm, also a Category 4 hurricane at landfall, caused some damage at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility - where space shuttle external tanks are built - and at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where shuttle main engines are tested.

NASA estimated that $1.1 billion may be required to recover from Hurricane Katrina.