Hurricane Katrina extensively damaged NASA space shuttle facilities, raising the strong possibility of flight delays that could jeopardize the future of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Katrina caused an estimated $500 million in damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, NASA officials said yesterday, and $600 million at the Mississippi-based Stennis Space Center, 45 miles east of there. The shuttles' fuel tanks are built at Michoud and shuttle engines are tested at Stennis.
NASA has not set a date for a Hubble servicing mission, and the agency's first priority in using the shuttle is servicing the International Space Station.
But a Hubble mission by mid-2008 is vital to ensuring there are fresh batteries, new scientific equipment and gyroscopes, which are needed to aim the observatory's cameras.
"We're not panicking yet, but we are concerned," said Mattias Mountain, who became director of the Space Telescope Science Institute on Sept. 1. The institute, on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University, has managed space science for Hubble since its launch in 1990.
Katrina scattered much of the work force at both Michoud and Stennis, caused extensive water damage and tore away pieces of roofs and building exteriors, said William Parsons, senior space adviser for NASA's hurricane recovery efforts.
At Michoud, concrete from the roof fell on a shuttle external fuel tank, he said, causing what appeared to be minor damage. But it could be weeks before electric power is restored there.
Hundreds of workers have been left homeless, he said.
NASA officials said yesterday that some workers might be transferred to either the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But they are unsure when work will resume because, they said, many workers have other priorities - including finding new homes.
"The question is, what is the work force ready to do," said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations.
At Stennis, just about all of the 1,800 employees have called in or been located, but up to 200 are without homes, Parsons said.
Only half of the work force of 2,000 at Michoud has been accounted for, he said, and a huge number are expected to need new living quarters.
Hubble's managers say they have to meet with NASA for details on a new timetable for a servicing mission.
"To be honest, we really don't know what the impact will be," said Preston M. Burch, Hubble program manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. Goddard scientists oversee Hubble's day-to-day operations.
Sean O'Keefe, NASA's former administrator, canceled plans for a manned servicing mission to Hubble last year, citing safety concerns raised by the Columbia shuttle accident. Foam insulation shed from an external fuel tank on launch damaged a wing of Columbia, causing it to explode during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere Feb. 1, 2003. Seven astronauts were killed.
O'Keefe's successor, Michael D. Griffin, said in April that he would favor a Hubble mission, but only after two more shuttles have returned safely. Foam insulation again fell from a shuttle external fuel tank during a launch in July, prompting Griffin to ground all shuttle flights until engineers could resolve the problem.
NASA had tentatively hoped to launch a shuttle to service the International Space Station by next March. How far Hurricane Katrina set back that launch date is unknown, officials said. A NASA memo saying the next launch would have to be delayed until late 2006 was just one estimate, officials said.
"There's lots of options being investigated. We're not really sure where things are right now," Gerstenmaier said.
Hubble began operating Aug. 28 on two gyroscopes, idling the third in a move designed to lengthen the life of the highly regarded telescope.
"Hubble itself is still a robust instrument," Mountain said.
Burch said researchers at Goddard are examining whether it's possible to use only one gyroscope on Hubble. Doing that would extend its life even further, but researchers won't know whether that's feasible for two more months, he said.
"It's something that may help us bridge the gap if a servicing mission is delayed beyond 2008," Burch said.