updated 9/8/2005 9:51:44 PM ET 2005-09-09T01:51:44

With two space shuttle facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina and hundreds of workers left homeless, NASA is reassessing the prospects of launching another mission next year.

Before the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast last week, NASA had hoped to launch Discovery in March. The storm put those plans in disarray, although officials weren’t ready Thursday to officially give up on a spring flight, saying it would be foolish to rule anything in or out.

“Right now, we’re still addressing what the implications are on the shuttle launch schedule, and if I say I don’t know what those are, that’s an understatement,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told employees in a televised address.

Griffin downplayed an internal memo written Sept. 1 by acting shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, who indicated a launch before fall 2006 might not be possible given the hurricane damage and the ongoing effort to prevent foam insulation from falling off shuttle fuel tanks. The memo and its contents were first reported by MSNBC.com.

A 1-pound chunk of foam came off Discovery’s external fuel tank during liftoff in July, and another big piece of foam doomed Columbia in 2003. The space agency immediately grounded the shuttle fleet; the cause of the latest foam loss is still unknown.

Griffin said Hale wrote the memo “at a particularly dark moment last week.” The NASA chief said he believes the launch will take place earlier than October 2006.

“We will always go with what the facts tell us,” he said. “Right now, we’re trying to gather those facts.”

At a news conference later Thursday, Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s space operations, refused to speculate on when the space shuttle might fly again, saying, “It’s really too difficult to predict.”

The space agency estimates Hurricane Katrina caused at least $1 billion in damage at its facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

NASA may end up repairing fuel tanks at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as opposed to the hurricane-damaged Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the tanks are made, Gerstenmaier said.

Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., where shuttle main engines are tested, was also damaged by the hurricane. The damage at both sites was primarily to roofs, but one of the eight fuel tanks at Michoud was dinged by debris.

At Michoud, Lockheed Martin Corp. has been able to contact only half its 2,000 employees, said Bill Parsons, a shuttle official who is heading NASA’s recovery effort. At Stennis, almost all 1,800 employees have been accounted for, and about 200 are without homes.

NASA, meanwhile, was keeping an eye on Hurricane Ophelia, which was stalled off the coast Thursday and drenching the Kennedy Space Center. Last summer, the space agency’s launch and landing site took the brunt of three hurricanes, which punched big holes into the massive building where shuttles are attached to their boosters and fuel tanks.

“This time, it was Michoud’s turn to take a bullet for the team,” said Griffin, who visited the New Orleans plant Wednesday.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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