CAPE CANAVERAL - Workers evacuated Tuesday from the low-lying New Orleans plant where they have been scrambling to prepare external fuel tanks for the shuttles.

A week ago, Hurricane Frances prompted the closing of Kennedy Space Center for nine days and battered buildings critical to preparing the shuttles for this spring's planned return to flight. Now, Ivan is menacing the tank plant and a Mississippi center where NASA tests shuttle main engines.

The Michoud Assembly Facility, already on a tight schedule to finish the tank for Discovery's scheduled launch in March or April, will lose at least a week's work even if the place survives Ivan unscathed. Workers did hurricane preparations Monday, then evacuated Tuesday.

"Good luck," said one worker's voice mail message on Tuesday afternoon.

At Stennis, just across the Mississippi border to the east, workers secured two of Discovery's three main engines before closing down Tuesday afternoon for what may be a week. One already-tested Discovery main engine is at Kennedy.

The test-firing stands were built to withstand the force of blazing main engines, so "I think they can withstand a little high wind," agency spokesman Paul Foreman said.

Discovery's fuel tank is secure inside one of the mammoth factories at Michoud, a sprawling complex where Lockheed Martin Corp. workers build the 15-story aluminum tanks.

NASA planned to ship the tank by ocean barge to the space center by early November. The tank, redesigned after foam from the last one popped off and knocked the fatal hole in Columbia's left wing, must be delivered on time so the launch team can attach it to its twin solid rocket boosters and the orbiter in time for a planned liftoff in March or April.

Help on the Way?
NASA's storm-battered Kennedy Space Center could get $126 million of a $3.1 billion emergency spending package the White House is asking Congress to approve in the wake of hurricanes Charley and Frances.
Space News story (subscription required).

NASA is still recovering from the shutdown at KSC, where Frances ripped the roof off a plant where workers make heat-shield components and tore gaping holes in the Vehicle Assembly Building where orbiters, tanks and boosters are put together for launch. The agency is still studying whether the damage will delay the launch.

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