Two small tornadoes spawned by Hurricane Elena touched down this afternoon between the two launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center, inflicting no apparent damage on the new space shuttle Atlantis as it rested on pad 39A awaiting its first flight Oct. 3.
Fifteen to 20 workers were battening down equipment on the pad in anticipation of Elena's arrival tonight when the tornadoes struck at 2:20 p.m., one from the south and one from the west.
Although some nearby support vehicles were damaged, according to Kennedy Space Center spokesman Hugh Harris, "there was no apparent damage to Atlantis, and none of the workers still on the pad was injured."
The shuttle rests vertically on the pad to a height of 184 feet. A guard station on 39A at the 190-foot level was almost blown over by the wind -- with a guard inside. He was not injured, but he had to be helped out of the station and into an elevator for the trip to the ground.
Three cars parked on the floor of 39A had windows broken from wind-slung gravel. A 15-ton tractor-driven vehicle used to service the shuttle's engines was blown 100 feet by the wind, although its wheel had been chocked. The wind also bent four steel posts three inches in diameter each.
The tornado touched down in the midst of heavy thunderstorms and winds that gusted up to 50 mph. Most launch pad workers had left the pad, having retracted the mechanical arms that give them access to Atlantis and closed the cockpit hatch.
"The white room the clean room where workers congregate was moved back from Atlantis so it won't rub against the side of the shuttle," Harris said.
The launch pad and the shuttle are built to withstand sustained winds of more than 100 mph. Wind and rain have never inflicted any serious damage on a launch pad here, although frequent lightning strikes have caused occasional electrical damage to launch pads.