September 2, 2005

NASA looks to shift shuttle tank work

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Hurricane Katrina has
indefinitely idled the Louisiana factory that assembles space
shuttle fuel tanks and NASA said on Friday it is looking to see
if other facilities can make critical tank repairs.

NASA had tentatively planned its next shuttle mission for
March, but additional delays were likely due to interruptions
in the tank repair work that must be done before the shuttle
can fly again.

The agency was primarily focused on trying to find the
employees and contractors who work at the assembly plant in
Louisiana, as well as a field center in Mississippi where space
shuttle engines are tested.

Both sites were in the path of Hurricane Katrina, which
destroyed huge sections of the U.S. Gulf Coast when it blasted
ashore with 145 mph (232 kph) winds on Monday.

"We're getting into contact with people," said NASA
spokesman Allard Beutel. "We're trying to take a head count."

NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans and the
Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, appear to
have sustained roof and water damage in the storm. Neither was
expected to resume operations soon.

Roads to Michoud were still under water and hundreds of
people employed by plant operator Lockheed Martin lost their
homes in the hurricane.

The factory has been the focus of NASA's efforts to fix
shuttle fuel tank problems that were blamed for the fatal 2003
Columbia accident.

Michoud is about 15 miles east of New Orleans and depends
on the city for power, water and other basic services. The
plant has emergency generators and other backup systems, Beutel

But with a long-term shutdown likely, NASA has begun
looking at what work can be shifted to other centers, including
the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Marshall Space
Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

NASA flew Discovery in July on its first shuttle mission
since the Columbia accident, but Discovery's tank also shed
large pieces of foam. Managers promptly suspended future
flights until additional work could be done on the tanks.

A chunk of falling foam damaged Columbia's wing during
launch and triggered its breakup in the atmosphere during a
landing attempt 16 days later. All seven astronauts aboard

NASA has three of the external fuel tanks at the Kennedy
Space Center, but all three need modifications to reduce the
foam-shedding risk before they can be used.