“Houston, we have a problem!”
Those words from the astronauts of Apollo 13 triggered the most famous emergency response of the space age, as the crew and their teammates back on Earth fought to bring their crippled spaceship safely home.
This time it’s Houston itself that is facing an emergency, but failure wasn’t an option then, and it’s not an option now. And, bringing history full circle, NASA’s own Houston Space Flight Center has required hurricane protection, so that it can continue its mission of providing first responders, crisis managers and the public with critical information about weather, storm and flooding conditions.
Tracking Disaster in Real Time
Hurricane Harvey first pummeled the city and its surrounding metropolitan area with historic record rainfall, then came back around to hit them with more. Some locations recorded nearly 5 feet of rainfall.
Thousands have been rescued from the rising floodwaters, while tens of thousands more fled their homes. Simply grasping the full scope of the tragedy is an ongoing process. Floodwaters may not recede for weeks; full recovery and rebuilding will take years.
Every stage of the emergency response, from the initial warning to planning rescue missions, has relied crucially on reconnaissance information from space. We have become so accustomed to space imagery that we take it for granted — real-time images of the storm itself and detailed, high-resolution mapping images showing the extent of the flooding.
All of it is critical lifesaving data, and all of it depends on keeping NASA’s mission control and space tracking centers in operation, even amid a catastrophic flood.
Information to the Rescue
A key player in hurricane protection is the Aqua Earth Observing System satellite, as reported at Space.com. Aqua sends back infrared-light telemetry that allows meteorologists to identify the cloud bands within a hurricane or tropical storm that are most likely to produce heavy rainfall.
When these intense rain bands stalled over the Houston area, Aqua data tipped off forecasters that the greatest threat from Harvey would come not from its high winds or ocean waves, but from days of constant, intense rainfall over the Houston region’s low-lying terrain.
Amid the flood disaster, according to Ars Technica, NASA is maintaining a skeleton crew of 125 people to maintain critical functions ranging from Mission Control for the International Space Station, to protecting the James Webb Space Telescope — awaiting its launch next year — to managing the space center’s own emergency response plan.
A NASA spokesperson emailed Ars Technica noting that “[c]urrent work focuses on supporting critical operations, riding out the storm and addressing minor issues such as fixing leaks and keeping drains open as they arise.”
Working alongside NASA during space emergencies is a place that Northrop Grumman has been before. We built the Lunar Module, which, though never meant as a lifeboat, safely carried the Apollo 13 astronauts 250,000 miles back to Earth.
We are there for Houston now with the Aqua Earth Observing System. And we’ll be there tomorrow with the James Webb Space Telescope, searching for the earth-like worlds of other suns that will help us better understand the Earth we live on.