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Jeanne damages NASA shuttle building

The third hurricane to hit Florida in just over a month blew out more panels and left more gaping holes in NASA's  massive Cape Canaveral shuttle assembly building.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The third hurricane to hit NASA's spaceport in just over a month blew out more panels and left more gaping holes in the massive shuttle assembly building, but overall damage was not as severe as feared, a space agency official said Sunday.

"Where there's obviously some more damage, it doesn't look appreciably worse than it did," said NASA spokesman George Diller, part of a 206-member team that spent the night barricaded inside the Kennedy Space Center.

"We just had a prayer service with the base chaplain because we all felt so relieved that we came out as well as we did," he said later in the morning.

Hurricane Jeanne struck the space center — still recovering from Hurricanes Charley and Frances — with 79 mph wind, according to unofficial reports.  It would have been more ferocious if the storm had come ashore just a little farther north.

All three space shuttles were reported safe in their hangars on Sunday.  All space station equipment and new building blocks awaiting launch to the orbiting outpost were also said to be fine.

But chunks of roofing were spotted around the base, along with mangled aluminum panels from the Vehicle Assembly Building, Diller said.  At one point, Diller and some others opened a door of the adjacent launch control center, where they were huddled, and peeked outside.  "We could see (the panels) fluttering down," he said.

The 525-foot-high structure was built in the mid-1960s to accommodate the towering Apollo moon rockets.  It is where space shuttles are attached to their boosters and external fuel tanks prior to liftoff.

Charley tore off about 40 of the 4-foot-by-16-foot exterior panels from the assembly building in mid-August, and Frances ripped away another 820 over Labor Day weekend, turning the pieces into flying shrapnel.  About 200 of those missing panels also lost the underlying insulation, leaving gaping holes in the southern side of the building.

NASA did not have enough time before Jeanne to plug the holes.  All workers could do was put netting inside, behind the holes, to catch any flying debris.  A huge hole in the roof, also the work of Frances, was covered with tarps and sandbags in preparation for Jeanne.

Two other critical buildings lost entire sections of roof during Frances, and workers patched them the best they could.

Anxious to see the latest damage, the space center's director, James Kennedy, took a 45-minute drive with his emergency director late Sunday morning.  "He thought that things don't look too bad," Diller reported.  Nevertheless, the space center will remain closed Monday.

Jeanne is yet another setback to NASA's effort to resume space shuttle flights in the spring, following a more than two-year stand-down in the wake of the Columbia accident.  Shuttle managers are expected to decide in the next week or two whether they will have to delay a Discovery launch planned for March or April.