CAPE CANAVERAL - NASAstarted to take fully assembled shuttle Atlantis apart at Kennedy Space Centeron Wednesday, while plans are on hold to send another external fuel tank backto its production plant in New Orleans.
Ripple effects fromHurricane Katrina raised serious doubts about the agency's ability to launchits next mission in March.
Up to 70 percent of thepeople who work at a shuttle external tank manufacturing plant in New Orleanshad their homes damaged or destroyed when Katrina swept ashore this week, NASAofficials said.
Its storm surge swamped theMichoud Assembly Facility with as much as 2 feet of water. Electrical power andcommunications were knocked out. Water service was interrupted.
The Lockheed Martin factorywill remain closed until at least Tuesday, but it might take several weeks torestore power, communications and other utilities. It's also uncertain how soonworkers will be able to return.
Plans to ship three tanks-- including the one for NASA's next mission -- back to Michoud forretrofitting are on indefinite hold.
The situation makes itincreasingly unlikely that NASA will be able to launch its next mission asplanned in March. The next window of opportunity doesn't open until May. ButNASA officials say it's too early to tell whether storm damage will triggerfurther delay.
"They're looking atall sorts of possibilities, and it's much too early to determine how this isall going to fall out," KSC spokesman Bruce Buckingham said. "Ourprime concern is the employees and their situation in the aftermath of thestorm."
NASA's second post-Columbiatest flight was pushed back to March from September to give engineers time tosolve continuing problems with external tank foam insulation.
Future shuttle flights areon hold until NASA determines why a large piece of foam fell off Discovery'stank two minutes after a July 26 launch, barely missing the shuttle's rightwing. A similar chunk of falling foam caused the February 2003 Columbiadisaster.
A NASA investigation teamhad been staging its work from Michoud. Operations are now working out of theMarshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The 15-story tank forNASA's next mission will be returned to the 52-story KSC Vehicle AssemblyBuilding from Port Canaveral.
Loaded onto a coveredbarge, it began a trip back to Michoud last week but since has been shelteredat Port Canaveral to avoid the storm. Now, it's unclear when the tank will beshipped, Buckingham said.
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