This story was updated at 2:12 p.m.EDT.
NASAofficials at the agency's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston closed themanned spaceflight facility Wednesday as Hurricane Rita approaches the TexasGulf Coast.
The closurewent into effect at 2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) and will continue until thehurricane threat has passed, NASA officials said, adding that a small emergencycrew will remain onsite. Primary mission operations of the International SpaceStation (ISS), now orbiting more than 200 miles above the Earth, will be handedover to Russian flight controllers while the JSC site is closed, they added.
"Theemergency plan for the ISS mission control is well understood," NASAspokesperson James Hartsfield told SPACE.combefore the closure.
Hartsfieldsaid that, once implemented, the transfer of mission operations from NASA ISSflight controllers to their Russian counterparts in Korolev,Russia near Moscow could continue through the evening.
"We alsohave an advisory team of flight controllers who will evacuate to a remotelocation and provide assistance," he added.
Flyingaboard the ISS are Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips, who arewrapping up a six-month mission onboard. The station crew has been informed ofthe preparations, NASA officials said.
As of 11:00a.m. EDT, Hurricane Rita was Category 4 hurricane with winds blowing at anestimated maximum speed of about 140 miles per hour, the National HurricaneCenter (NHC) reported.
Thehurricane was centered at about 260 miles west of Key West, Florida and 775miles east of Corpus Christi, Texas, with its landfall anticipated Saturday asat least a Category 3 storm, NHC forecasters reported.
Hartsfieldsaid JSC implemented its "liberal leave" policy, allowing personnel extra timeto prepare their homes and families for the hurricane's arrival, before the JSCclosure.
About 3,000civil servants and up to 12,000 contractors work at JSC, NASA officials said.
Additionalhurricane preparations at JSC included the relocation of NASA aircraft to ElPaso, Texas, as well as measures to safeguard important documents and equipmentfrom the storm.
HurricaneRita is the second major hurricane facing NASA in recent weeks.
In lateAugust, HurricaneKatrina struck the Gulf Coast, devastating New Orleans, Louisiana and theMississippi coast.
That storm,also a Category 4 hurricane at landfall, caused some damage at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility - where space shuttleexternal tanks are built - and at Stennis SpaceCenter in Mississippi, where shuttle main engines are tested.
NASAestimated that $1.1 billion may be required to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
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