The space shuttle may not fly until late 2006 at the earliest because of technical problems and the devastation of key shuttle facilities by Hurricane Katrina, according to an internal NASA memo written by the top shuttle official.
The shuttle’s fuel tanks are built at a plant in New Orleans, its engines tested at a site in coastal Mississippi. Katrina damaged both facilities, scattered the personnel and left many workers homeless.
But even before Katrina struck, other problems “would have made the March launch date infeasible, May, unlikely,” according to the Sept. 1 memo by acting shuttle program manager Wayne Hale and obtained by USA Today. May would have been the next launch opportunity after March.
Katrina is another blow to NASA’s efforts to return to normal operations after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003, killing the crew of seven.
The first flight since the accident, by shuttle Discovery, landed safely one month ago. NASA officials had hoped to launch a follow-up flight by shuttle Atlantis this month. A successful Atlantis flight would have allowed the shuttle to resume its main task of building the International Space Station.
NASA officials said last month that the next flight wouldn’t launch any earlier than March 2006 because of the loss of foam debris from Discovery’s fuel tank. The same kind of debris struck Columbia, causing its demise.
The memo spells out serious damage done to shuttle facilities. There is no road access to the tank plant, and the rail lines through New Orleans used to deliver the shuttle’s rockets have been disrupted.
“Post hurricane impacts are under review,” the memo says, “but my personal (estimate) is that Fall is more likely given a maximum effort.” That estimate still leaves NASA open to “schedule risk,” the memo says.
The memo was provided by a shuttle engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and confirmed by a shuttle engineer at Johnson Space Center. Both declined to be identified because they are not authorized to speak for the agency.
The memo emphasizes that more information will become available by mid-September.
“There haven’t been any final decisions,” said NASA spokesman Dean Acosta when asked about the memo. “The flow of information is still happening.”
Extra delay would squeeze the number of times NASA can fly the shuttle before its targeted retirement in 2010. That could spell trouble for the space station, because only the shuttle is powerful enough to carry the remaining pieces of the station into orbit. NASA chief Michael Griffin said last month that “absent major problems,” the shuttle could “essentially complete the assembly of the space station in the time that we have remaining.”