Image: Fuel tank at Michoud facility
Lockheed Martin / NASA Michoud
An external fuel tank for the space shuttle rises from the floor of the Vertical Assembly Building at the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, in advance of Discovery's return-to-flight mission last month.
By Senior space writer
updated 8/30/2005 8:34:00 PM ET 2005-08-31T00:34:00

NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where space shuttle external tanks are assembled, and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi have weathered the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

So far, Katrina has been responsible for more than 80 deaths and billions of dollars of destruction along the Gulf Coast. In the next few days and weeks, those totals are likely to increase, and Katrina will likely rank as one of the most devastating hurricanes ever.

“My heart goes out to all the people affected by this hurricane," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a written statement. "I will be visiting Stennis and the Michoud Assembly Facility soon to talk with our people."

While water leakage and damage at the Michoud have been reported, emergency teams at the site advise that the huge tanks appear to be OK.

“We’re in a low area, so we had 1 or 2 feet [30 to 60 centimeters] of water yesterday. That has drained down now,” Harry Wadsworth, a Lockheed Martin spokesman for Michoud operations, said Tuesday. “Obviously, the area is still wet, but it’s drying out. We did get some roof damage … some damage to some windows, and tree limbs hitting windows.”

Lockheed Martin Space Systems operates the sprawling facility for NASA.

Other centers affected
NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., suffered water and roof damage, though the full extent of the damage is still undetermined, space agency officials said. They added that hundreds of Stennis employees and their family members took shelter at the center during the storm.

While the space agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., also sustained minor damage, the facility is supporting recovery efforts at both Stennis and Michoud. Officials at Marshall dispatched a pair of helicopters to deliver communications equipment and other supplies to the two space centers.

“They took satellite phones and other equipment,” NASA spokeswoman Katherine Trinidad told Space.com. “Land lines aren’t working, or cell phones, or Internet at those sites.”

Trinidad said it is still too early to estimate the cost of the damage Katrina caused, nor how the damage will affect NASA’s preparations for its next shuttle flight.

Before the hurricane hit, engineers at Michoud were working to solve foam debris shedding problems with NASA’s shuttle external tanks. The shuttle Discovery is slated to launch the agency’s STS-121 mission no earlier than March 2006.

Initial assessment
“The external tanks are OK. The initial assessment is good for them. Just one of them had a little water on it,” Wadsworth told Space.com in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We keep them all inside in the factory, or the Vertical Assembly Building, or our process and checkout building.”

As Hurricane Katrina pounded the area, eight shuttle external tanks, in different stages of being retrofitted, were at the Michoud facility, Wadsworth said.

The 832-acre (337-hectare) NASA Michoud Assembly Facility is located in New Orleans about  24 miles (38 kilometers) from New Orleans International Airport and 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the French Quarter.

“Some of our buildings got a little wet from the hurricane, but it was sporadic,” Wadsworth added.

Wadsworth said that a hurricane emergency crew has been tending the facility, even as the storm roared through the area. That team consisted of 20 to 25 people. “They’re safe. They were up in a very tough concrete building up on the second floor where our emergency operations center is located,” he said.

That team was busy on Tuesday assessing the property, Wadsworth explained. “We’re doing pretty good,” he said, with plans to reopen the facility on Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day.

Future use of tanks
The Michoud facility features one of the world’s largest manufacturing plants (43 acres, or 17.4 hectares, under one roof) and a port with deep-water access for the transportation of the large external tanks by barge across the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida and up to Kennedy Space Center.

The shuttle external tank is 154 feet (46 meters) long and 28 feet (8 meters) in diameter, representing the largest single component of the space shuttle system.

Even with a planned shutdown of the shuttle program in 2010, NASA planners are eyeing further use of the external tank as an element of a proposed heavy-lift launcher to support exploration initiatives to the moon, Mars and beyond.

The Space Shuttle Propulsion Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the external tank work. Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. in New Orleans is the primary contractor.

SPACE.com staff writer Tariq Malik contributed to this story from New York City.

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