Tank changes, hurricane put shuttle schedule in limbo
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: September 8, 2005
Two key NASA facilities in the path of Hurricane Katrina suffered relatively minor damage, agency officials said today, but hundreds of government and contractor workers are now homeless and recovery costs could top $1 billion when all is said and done.
NASA managers do not yet know what impact the storm damage will have on plans to launch the next shuttle mission, a flight that had been tentatively targeted for takeoff in early March.
Before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, NASA managers and engineers were in the process of trying to figure out what caused foam insulation to fall off the shuttle Discovery's external tank during launch in July and what might have to be done to eliminate the problem with future tanks.
The giant fuel tanks are built at Lockheed Martin's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans and shipped by barge to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In the wake of Discovery's mission, NASA was gearing up to ship the first of two post-Columbia tanks now at Kennedy back to Michoud for eventual modifications.
That shipment is now on hold, but NASA managers have not yet written off the March launch window.
"What we're trying to figure out is how Katrina has affected the shuttle program," Administrator Mike Griffin told NASA employees today. "If you talk to the folks at Michoud, they're ready to get busy taking care of any tank damage that was done and they want to be back in production in a few weeks. ... Their morale and esprit de corps down there just has to be seen to believed."
NASA managers are studying a wide variety of options, including the possibility of doing some of the foam work at Kennedy. But for now, space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier says it's too soon to say what impact Katrina will have on the shuttle's eventual launch date.
"We don't even have a tentative plan to say with any certainty where we are," he told reporters in an afternoon teleconference. "We were in the process of doing that evaluation (when Katrina hit). We didn't complete it. We've got liens against things, but also some major things have changed. If I can take a path that picks particular failures on the fault tree, pick particular schedules, it looks like you can get to March. So I can't say definitively what the probabilities are.
"We need to spend a little more time to get some understanding of what the probabilities of those particular events occurring and then I can talk to you with some definitiveness about what the schedule is. I'm not trying to avoid the question or not pick a date. I honestly don't have the data to talk to you intelligently about what the date would be. Because as soon as I lay it out, you're going to start asking 'what about this?' and I will tell you I don't know about that schedule constraint.
"So rather than pick some arbitrary thing and then be criticized for how we either delivered to it, or don't deliver to it, or change it, I'd rather just say we don't have a schedule, let the teams ... lay out all the constraints, look at the probabilities of achieving these things and understand where we are and then make some definitive statements. It's not going to affect any of our near term work. We're clearly not in the fall. We don't have anything that's driving us from an overall standpoint, we're sometime in the spring."
Griffin confirmed today that Bill Parsons, who is overseeing NASA's hurricane recovery work, will no longer serve as shuttle program manager. Instead, Parsons eventually will serve as director of the Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., the post he held when he was selected to run the shuttle program in the wake of the Columbia disaster.
Parsons' deputy, Wayne Hale, is now the acting shuttle program manager. In a recent internal memo that was widely circulated in the media, Hale wrote that a launch before next fall appeared unlikley. But Griffin today downplayed the memo and said he believes the next flight will take off earlier than that.
"Bill (Gerstenmaier) said that was Wayne's assessment at a particularly dark moment last week and we're already off that date," Griffin said. "The reality is that that date just doesn't have any particular currency in our planning horizon.
"While we're trying to figure out what to do, lots of dates get floated around. Until we actually caucus as a management team and figure out what our constraints are, we don't have a date except that right now, Bill and I think it's somewhat earlier than October. We'll let you know when we can."
Stennis, like Michoud, escaped major hurricane damage but the storm's impact on the workforce will be difficult to overcome. Shuttle main engines are test fired at Stennis before shipment to Kennedy.
"From a facilities standpoint, both Stennis and Michoud fared pretty well," Parsons said. "A tornado seems to have hit one of the headquarters building here at Stennis, took off part of the roof, caused some water damage. We have a little bit of water damage here and there, we have some trees down and a few facilities that need some work, but overall, Stennis Space Center fared very well.
"Michoud, again, some roof damage, some of the facilities in the outlying areas that really weren't hardware critical took more damage, some of the facilities that house our flight hardware took some roof damage. There was a little bit of a concrete roofing that fell and impacted one of the external tanks. We haven't been able to evaluate that yet, it's still ongoing. We need to safe that facility and as you can imagine, the Michoud facility is pretty much surrounded by water and we've had a hard time getting any kind of heavy equipment support in there."
Parsons said he did not know how many workers at the Michoud facility lost their homes. As of this afternoon, he said, Lockheed Martin had successfully contacted only about half the company's employees and many of them do not yet know whether their houses survived intact or not.
"At Stennis, we've accounted for all our civil servants, which is around 300 people, and we've accounted for about 95 percent of our contractors and that continues to improve every hour," Parsons said. "Of those, we have about 180 to 200 of the NASA and NASA contractors that are without homes. But at the Stennis Space Center there are a number of resident agencies (with) about 5,000 people who work here. ... We know right now that as many as 800 to 900 people within this community that work here are without homes."
Gerstenmaier said one preliminary estimate indicated it could cost NASA up to $1.1 billion to fully recover from Katrina. That very preliminary figure includes actual repairs to facilities and a host of other charges for travel, equipment, supplies and support for the workforce.
Facilities aside, engineers still have not developed a consensus on what caused foam insulation to fall off Discovery's external tank during launch. The largest piece came off a so-called protuberance airload, or PAL, ramp, a long, narrow strip of layered, hand-applied foam that smooths the supersonic flow of air over pressurization lines and a cable tray.
Data collected by sensors on Discovery's tank showed the air flow across that region of the tank is more complex than previously believed and significantly different from assumptions built into computer programs used to model the environment.
Gerstenmaier said it may be possible to reduce the thickness of the ramp, presumably making it less susceptible to shedding, but the flight data made it unlikely the ramp can be eliminated.
Before Katrina hit, NASA planned to ship the tanks currently at Kennedy back to Michoud for PAL ramp modifications and fixes to other areas where smaller amounts of foam came off. The agency now is looking at whether some of that work might be possible at Kennedy.