The Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Cape Canaveral dodged a giant proverbial bullet earlier this month when Hurricane Matthew very rudely brushed up against the east coast of Florida.
While the category 4 storm skirted Cape Canaveral by roughly 26 nautical miles and disaster was largely averted, the sprawling 144,000-acre Merritt Island compound — arguably the most iconic of the 10 NASA field centers — did sustain some damage; “millions in damages” according to news reports. But again, it could have been a lot worse.
After the hurricane slowly exited Brevard County and environs and churned northwards, several facilities at KSC where found to have incurred damage. A majority of the impacted structures were support buildings or publicly displayed outdoor artifacts that topped over in the high winds. In addition to “isolated roof damage,” KSC officials reported “a few down power lines and limited water intrusion.” The center’s highly trafficked Visitors Complex, National Register of Historic Places-listed Operations and Checkout Building and landmark Vehicle Assembly Building, the tallest non-urban building in the United States, all emerged from the storm unscathed. The same goes for the trio of under-modification launch pads at Launch Complex 39 including SpaceX-leased Pad 39A.
A modest mid-century beach bungalow hidden away amongst a swath of sand dunes wasn’t so lucky.
The structure, known simply as the Beach House, wasn’t destroyed beyond repair but it did suffer significant damage — a sizable chunk of its roof was sheared off during the storm.
Now a conference center, this modest beach retreat used by astronauts and their families has been roughed-up by major hurricanes including, most recently, Hurricane Matthew, which damaged the roof. (Photo: Cory Huston/NASA)
The emotional heart of Kennedy Space Center
Little known amongst hardcore NASA buffs (and even NASA staffers), the Beach House — some call it the Astronaut’s Cottage, or officially, the former Astronaut Training and Rehabilitation Building — is arguably the center's most unassuming, obscure and seemingly out-of-place structure. After all, the Beach House is a pre-KSC holdover — an authentic Old Florida relic — that dates back to when land where the cottage stands was an oceanfront subdivision named Neptune Beach. When NASA purchased Neptune Beach through eminent domain for $31,500 in 1963, all of the subdivision's vacation homes and other buildings — a gas station and grocery store included — were razed.
Yet this single wood-framed concrete block beach bungalow, only a year old when acquired by NASA, was spared. And over the next several decades, it quietly and dutifully served as the emotional heart of KSC.
During the late-20th century heyday of NASA’s space shuttle program as well as during the earlier Apollo era, the Beach House is where astronauts would spend their last earthbound moments with their loved ones before relocating to official crew quarters at the Operations and Checkout Building and, after that, achieving lift-off. In some tragic cases, these emotional farewells were final.
Located at a remove from the bustling Charles Luckman-designed launch center down a long sandy driveway off a lonely stretch of Cape Road, the secluded cottage functioned much like any other low-key coastal Florida hideaway: there was hanging out, barbecuing, reading, relaxing, long walks on the sand — and, naturally, a disproportionate amount of hugging and crying. In the early years, the Beach House was also home to numerous astronaut slumber parties.
Writes Cheryl Mansfield in a lovely article, “If Walls Could Talk,” published by NASA in 2005:
The salty air here has been filled with the laughter, whispers, and even tears of the men and women who've passed through this humble beach cottage before soaring off this planet into the vastness of space. Even though for some time it was officially called the Kennedy Space Center Conference Center, the historical building has always been simply the ‘beach house’ to generations of astronauts and their families.
For years it's been their quiet, unassuming preflight retreat where they have reflected, said last goodbyes and stood on the threshold of their dream: space travel.
Obviously, the astronauts who used the Beach House as a preflight chill-out zone have nothing but fond memories as you can see in the video below:
'A protected place'
“It's a piece of history. It looks like just a normal house, but it was a protected place where you could go while you're in quarantine,” Sandy Magnus, an Illinois-born engineer who acted as mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2009 (STS-119) and now serves as executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, recently told Seeker. "It was time where our families could all interact. It was really special.”
Referring to the Beach House as a “significant place in the life of astronauts,” three-time space shuttle vet (STS-41D, STS-27, STS-36) Mike Mullane told NASA in 2005: "It's a pretty stressful time when you're getting ready to launch into space. It's great to have a place that's quiet and isolated where you can talk to your loved ones.”
"The beach house is a great place to come to get away from all the distractions of the mission," added Mullane's wife, Donna. "Come out here, be with your family, kind of relax... in an environment that's just as non-stressful as possible."
As noted by the Smithsonian, in 2013 — two years after NASA officially retired its 30-year-old shuttle program — the Beach House was permanently converted into a small conference center.
According to a 2013 report prepared for the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey, both the interior and exterior of this "exceptionally significant" place of rest and refuge were extensively renovated in 1997 after sustaining storm damage. Major alterations and additions included the removal of the original two bedrooms and the installation of a new wraparound deck.
Hidden away amongst a lonely stretch of sand dunes between Launch Complexes 40 and 41, the Beach House is indeed part of NASA's Kennedy Space Center but might as well be a world away. (Map screenshot: Google Maps)
Although the layout, appearance, size and function of the (originally) 1,200-square-foot residence has changed over the decades, the report notes that there is "no other building at KSC that better represents the vulnerable and human side of spaceflight, with all its risks and rewards, than the Beach House."
As for the damage inflicted by Hurricane Matthew, it would seem that NASA officials are dedicated to again repair this humble yet hugely significant Space Coast beach bungalow. “We have protected it from further damage," Kennedy Space Center director Robert Cabana relayed to Seeker. "The important thing is that it's structurally sound." The cost of restoring the Beach House's roof and other parts of the storm-damaged building is unknown.
"I don't know who the far-thinking person was that preserved this house from destruction ... but thank you,” Mullane told NASA in 2005. “I'm sure they could not have imagined how this would be part of manned space flight history."