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Katrina batters NASA facility

Michoud assembles space shuttle external tanks

By Leonard David
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The Michoud Assembly Facility staffs around 2,000 employees in New Orleans.

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(SPACE.com) -- NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, the location where space shuttle external tanks are assembled, has weathered the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, said the facility's spokesman on Tuesday.

While water leakage and damage at the facility has been reported, emergency teams at the site advised that the huge tanks appeared to be in good shape.

"We're in a low area, so we had one or two feet of water yesterday. That has drained down now," said Harry Wadsworth, a Lockheed Martin spokesman for Michoud operations.

"Obviously, the area is still wet, but it's drying out. We did get some roof damage...some damage to some windows, and tree limbs hitting windows."

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

"The external tanks are okay. The initial assessment is good for them. Just one of them had a little water on it," Wadsworth told SPACE.com on Tuesday.

"We keep them all inside in the factory, or the vertical assembly building, or our process and checkout building."

As Hurricane Katrina pounded the area on Monday, eight shuttle external tanks, in different stages of being retrofitted, were at the Michoud facility, Wadsworth 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.

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

Wadsworth said that a hurricane emergency crew has been tending the facility, even as the storm roared through the area. That team consisted of about 20 to 25 people.

"They're safe. They were up in a very tough concrete building up on the second floor where our emergency operations center is located," he said.

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

The Michoud facility features one of the world's largest 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.

The shuttle 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.

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

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.



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