MELBOURNE, Fla. — NASA ordered the evacuation of Johnson Space Center in Houston on Wednesday and turned over control of the International Space Station to its Russian partners as Hurricane Rita barreled across the Gulf of Mexico.
Many of the space center's 15,000 government and contract workers had already left the facility by the time the evacuation order was given, heeding calls from Texas officials, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said.
Johnson Space Center, home to the Mission Control Center and the headquarters of NASA's human space flight program, is less than a quarter of a mile from Clear Lake, which is part of Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Workers covered computers and other electronic devices with plastic sheeting and picked up loose objects from around the facility. A small group of workers will remain inside Mission Control during the storm, Hartsfield said.
Operations of the space station were passed to the Russian Mission Control complex outside Moscow. NASA keeps a small team of flight controllers and support personnel in Russia at all times.
A backup team of space station experts will be secluded at a U.S. site to help in case any emergencies arise on the station, Hartsfield said.
NASA has already been affected by hurricane damage this year. The Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans and the Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., have been closed since Hurricane Katrina hit.
The New Orleans center, which manufactures the space shuttle fuel tanks, is key to NASA's efforts to resume shuttle flights, which remain on hold after lingering problems with insulating foam marred the agency's first shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Pieces of the external tank's foam insulation fell off during the launch of the shuttle Discovery on July 26.