NASA Centers Weather Hurricane Katrina

This story was updated at 5:32 p.m.EDT.  

NASA's MichoudAssembly Facility in New Orleans, where space shuttle external tanks areassembled, and Stennis Space Center in Mississippihave weathered the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

So far, Katrina has beenresponsible for more than 80 deaths and billions of dollars of destructionalong the Gulf Coast. In the next few days and weeks, those totals are likelyto increase and Katrina will likely rank as one of the mostdevastating hurricanes ever.

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

While water leakage and damageat the Michoud have been reported, emergency teams atthe site advise that the huge tanks appear to be okay.

"We're in a low area, so wehad one or two feet of water yesterday. That has drained down now," said HarryWadsworth, a Lockheed Martin spokesman for Michoudoperations. "Obviously, the area is still wet, but it's drying out. We did getsome roof damage...some damage to some windows, and tree limbs hitting windows."

Lockheed Martin SpaceSystems operates the sprawling facility for NASA.

Other centers affected

NASA's Stennis Space Centernear Bay St. Louis, Mississippi suffered water and roof damage, though the fullextent of the damage is still undetermined, NASA officials said, adding that hundredsof Stennis employees and their family members tookshelter at the center during the storm.

While the space agency's Marshall Space Flight Centerin Huntsville, Alabama also sustained minor damage, the facility is supportingrecovery efforts at both Stennis and Michoud. MSFC officials (MSFC) dispatched a pair ofhelicopters to deliver communications equipment and other supplies to the twospace centers.

"They took satellite phones and other equipment," NASAspokesperson 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 thecost of the damage Katrina caused, nor how the damage will affect NASA'spreparations for its next shuttle flight.

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

Initial assessment

"The external tanks areokay. The initial assessment is good for them. Just one of them had a littlewater on it," Wadsworth told SPACE.com in a telephone interview today."We keep them all inside in the factory, or the vertical assembly building, orour process and checkout building."

As Hurricane Katrina poundedthe area, eight shuttle external tanks, in different stages of beingretrofitted, were at the Michoud facility, Wadsworthsaid.

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

"Some of our buildings got alittle wet from the hurricane, but it was sporadic," Wadsworth added.

Wadsworth said that ahurricane emergency crew has been tending the facility, even as the stormroared through the area. That team consisted of about 20 to 25 people. "They'resafe. They were up in a very tough concrete building up on the second floorwhere our emergency operations center is located," he said.

That team has been busytoday assessing the property, Wadsworth explained. "We're doing pretty good," he said, with plans to reopen the facility onSeptember 6.

Future use of tanks

The Michoudfacility features one of the world's largest manufacturing plants (43 acresunder one roof) and a port with deep-water access for the transportation of thelarge external tanks by barge across the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida and upto Kennedy Space Center.

The shuttle external tank is154 feet (46 meters) long, 28 feet (eight meters) in diameter and is thelargest single component of the space shuttle system.

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

The Space Shuttle PropulsionOffice at NASA's Marshall Center manages the external tank work. LockheedMartin Space Systems Company in New Orleans is the primary contractor.

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

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