NASA's Shuttle External Tank Facility Feels Brunt of Hurricane Katrina
This is an image of Hurricane Katrina on Sunday, August 28, 2005 at 10:25 PM EDT (Or 2:27 UTC Monday, August 29) as seen by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite's PR (Precipitation Radar), VIRS (Visible Infrared Scanner), TMI (Tropical Microwave Imager) and the GOES spacecraft.
Credit: NASA/JAXA.

BOULDER, Colorado -- Hurricane Katrina is howling its way through Louisiana and has caused damage at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, the site where space shuttle external tanks are assembled.

"There is water leakage and potential water damage in the buildings, but there's no way to tell how much at this point," Evan McCollum, a Lockheed Martin Space Systems spokesman in Denver told SPACE.com.


Click here to see images of Hurricane Katrina's landfall at New Orleans, Louisiana.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Michoud Operations operates the sprawling Michoud Assembly Facility for NASA. When fully staffed with some 2,000 employees, the organization is one of the largest employers in New Orleans.

The facility features one of the world's biggest manufacturing plants (43 acres 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.

McCollum said that a small emergency team - security, facilities, communications people and others - are hunkered down in a building at Michoud, riding out the hurricane.

Roof damage

"This morning the winds were about 100 miles per hour at the facility," McCollum said. There were some security cameras that have been blown away but some that had survived. From what they could see from the cameras that had survived, it looked like there was some roof damage to three or four buildings."

The Michoud team, McCollum added, is hoping to go out later this afternoon when the winds die down to get a visual inspection to see how things look.

Power from the city was lost, with the facility now on backup generators. Pumps were working and were appearing to do a good job of handling the deluge of water, McCollum said.

Precautious taken

"There are several external tanks in various stages of production. Precautious were taken to guard the tanks from the storm," McCollum said. "They are hoping for a late afternoon assessment if winds die down to below 50 miles per hour they will go out and do the visual inspection, to check on the tanks and check on the facilities."

McCollum said that, depending on what the emergency team finds later today, the Michoud facility could reopen Thursday, or that may be extended.

"We just don't know yet," he said.

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

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

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