Hurricanes & The Space Program

Hurricane Alicia, 1983

Hurricane Alicia, 1983

When Hurricane Harvey ripped through Houston, it brought back memories of my NASA days in that area.  Thirty-four years ago this month, my husband, fellow Astronaut, Hoot Gibson, and I experienced a fearsome hurricane up close.

The Johnson Space Center is located near the Texas Gulf Coast, half-way between Houston and Galveston.  It has seen its share of storms.  Our home for much of our astronaut careers was on a bayou…not far from Galveston Bay.

In August 1983, a storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico and became Hurricane Alicia. It was predicted to make landfall at Houston.  All of our small NASA T-38 jets were sitting on the tarmac at nearby Ellington Airforce Base and had to be evacuated.  All the Astronaut and NASA pilots needed to fly them north to a safer spot: Oklahoma.  If time permitted, one of the larger NASA planes would fly our husbands home before the storm hit.

Luckily, the menfolk made it back home just as the wind began to pick up.

After hurried preparations, that night we watched the worsening storm through a small hole in the storm shutters.   At first, the wind and rain whipped the water in the bayou into a ferocious froth. As the storm surge pushed in from the bay, we could see debris-strewn water beginning to creep up our backyard, toward the house.  The wind howled, and the shutters shook as the 100 mph Category 3 made a direct hit on our quaking home.  As the eye passed through, the tempest was eerily calm.

Moments later, the wind returned from a different direction for several more hours.

Hurricane Alicia

Hurricane debris in our backyard.

Our roof stayed on, and the water stopped short of our doorstep.  The power went out some time during the night…not to return for almost a week.

At sunrise, nothing prepared us for going outdoors.

As the storm dissipated, we discovered that all the backyard fences down our street had been swept away; our neighbor’s boat had been smashed against his boathouse.  Swimming pools were full of the muck from the bottom of the bayou.  The street in front of our house was completely full of tree limbs and debris.  Neighbors gathered, and the clean-up began.  The sound of chainsaws filled the fetid air.  Bonfires of downed trees and trash blazed at the park at the end of our street.  Both the August heat and the mosquitoes were almost unbearable in equal measures.  Snakes swam in the remaining flood water.  We learned that in a rainstorm, fire ants cling together in huge balls and float along until they find dry land—or a hapless passer-by.

In 1983, there were no Space Shuttles in flight during Alicia.  But what happened to the Space Center during Harvey?

Mission Control Hurricane Patch 2017

Mission Control Hurricane Patch, 2017

The Mission Control Center was high and dry. 

Personnel had to keep an eye on the International Space Station 24/7, monitoring the in-flight systems for problems and sending commands as needed.  Those great folks left their homes and families, camping out in the spare rooms of the Control Center and sleeping on cots in shifts.

You can’t beat that kind of devotion!

– Rhea

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