September 27, 2005

NASA Resumes Space Station Control After Hurricanes

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- NASA resumed control of the International Space Station and sent a shuttle fuel tank to its New Orleans assembly plant as it restarted operations at facilities on the storm-stricken U.S. Gulf Coast on Tuesday.

The Johnson Space Center in Houston was evacuated last week due to foreboding predictions that Hurricane Rita would pass nearby and NASA had turned over control of the orbiting outpost to the backup operations center near Moscow.

The Houston center officially reopened on Tuesday, although not all employees were back at work, NASA spokesman Kyle Herring said.

Rita steered east of the space center, delivering the full force of its 120-mph (192-kph) winds and torrential rain to communities along the Texas-Louisiana border.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a barge with one of the space shuttle's external fuel tanks began what was expected to be a five-day journey to the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans. The plant has been shut down since Hurricane Katrina battered Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29, but was scheduled to reopen for limited work next week, Herring said.

Katrina also shut down NASA's Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where shuttle main engines are tested.

The Michoud shutdown affected NASA's plans to begin analysis to determine why the fuel tanks, which were redesigned after the fatal 2003 Columbia disaster, failed to work as planned during the agency's first mission since the accident.

During the launch of shuttle Discovery on July 26, large chunks of foam fell off the tank, echoing a problem that triggered the breakup of Columbia and the deaths of seven astronauts in 2003.

A chunk of foam fell from Columbia's tank during launch and hit the ship's wing. The damage was undetected until the shuttle attempted to return to Earth for landing 16 days later.

NASA had hoped to fix the tank and return Discovery to space in March, but the hurricane shutdown, as well as difficulties in determining why the foam fell off the tank in the first place, likely will delay the resumption of flights until later in 2006.

The next opportunity to launch a shuttle to the space station under new flight rules adopted after the Columbia accident would be between June 30 and July 19, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said.