September 21, 2005

NASA braces for hurricane hit in Houston area

By Irene Klotz

MELBOURNE, Florida (Reuters) - NASA ordered the evacuation
of the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Wednesday and turned
over control of the International Space Station to its Russian
partners as powerful Hurricane Rita barreled across the Gulf of

Many of the space center's 15,000 government and contractor
workers had already left the space center by the time the
evacuation order was given, heeding calls from Texas officials
to evacuate the area, NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said.

The Johnson Space Center, home to the Mission Control
Center and the headquarters of NASA's human space-flight
program, is less than a quarter-mile from Clear Lake, which is
part of Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Workers covered computers and other electronic devices with
plastic sheets and picked up loose objects from around the
center. 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 of 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 out in case any emergencies arise on the
station, Hartsfield said.

NASA already has been affected by hurricane damage this
year. The Michoud Assembly Facility outside of New Orleans and
the Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., have been
shut since Hurricane Katrina hit.

The New Orleans center, which manufactures the space
shuttle fuel tanks, is key to NASA's efforts to resume space
shuttle flights, which remain on hold after lingering problems
with falling foam marred the agency's first shuttle flight
since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Columbia broke apart during landing due to wing damage
caused by a piece of foam insulation that broke off from the
external tank during launch. Seven astronauts died.

Large pieces of foam insulation also fell off during the
launch of the shuttle Discovery on July 26, prompting the
agency to ground the fleet again for further repairs.