NASA prepared to evacuate its Johnson Space Center in Houston and turn over control of the International Space Station to its Russian partners on Wednesday, as Hurricane Rita barreled across the Gulf of Mexico with ferocious winds.
Space agency officials were meeting to discuss storm preparations, said NASA spokesman James Hartsfield.
But many of the space center's 15,000 government and contractor workers were already taking advantage of NASA's liberal leave policy to heed calls from Texas state officials to evacuate the area, he said.
The Johnson Space Center, home to "Mission Control," and the headquarters of NASA's human spaceflight program, is situated less than a quarter-mile (400 metres) from Clear Lake, which is part of Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Work teams on Tuesday began protecting computers and other electronic devices with plastic sheets and picked up loose objects from around the center. A small group of workers would remain inside Mission Control during the storm, Hartsfield said, reports Reuters.
According to Houston Chronicle, NASA is the managing partner for the 16-nation space station effort, the U.S. and Russian control centers have shared ground supervision since orbital assembly began in 1998. A team of American experts is in residence at the Russian control facility, which is active around the clock.
Hartsfield said a half-dozen controllers are on standby outside the storm threat area and could go to Russia if Rita forces a lengthy shutdown at JSC.
Johnson will be closed at least through Friday, NASA officials said.
Also Wednesday, NASA began flying its three-dozen T-38 jet trainers and other aircraft to El Paso to get them out of the storm's path.
Many of those who work at Johnson live in Galveston County and parts of the Clear Lake area that could face high winds and flooding. Employees on Wednesday backed up computer files and placed protective plastic over vulnerable electronic equipment.