The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Michoud building after hurricane
Hurricane Katrina caused some damage to buildings at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, but the damage pales in comparison to the overall devastation of the region. (credit: NASA)

The hurricane and the vision

At first, it seemed like déjà vu. Almost exactly one year ago, a hurricane threatened to make landfall on Florida’s Space Coast, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Hurricane Frances was powerful enough, some feared, that a direct strike could severely damage or even destroy the Vehicle Assembly Building and the processing facilities where the shuttle fleet was stored. Frances, though, came ashore south of KSC and was not nearly as strong as forecast: as a result, while KSC suffered some damage, including the loss of hundreds of panels from the exterior of the VAB, the center itself, and the shuttle fleet, were spared.

That same scenario seemed to be playing out for a time a week ago. Another powerful hurricane, named Katrina, was making a beeline for New Orleans, home of the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the shuttle’s external tanks are assembled. A direct strike by a Category Five storm, some feared, could wipe out the center, depriving NASA of the ability to make the tanks. However, like Frances a year earlier, Katrina weakened a bit and drifted from its doomsday trajectory, sparing New Orleans, it seemed.

The physical damage to Michoud’s buildings, though, are the least of NASA’s near-term problems.

However, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has turned out to be far more devastating than anyone imagined: levees damaged during the storm broke, flooding most of the city, stranding tens of thousands unable or unwilling to evacuate in deteriorating conditions. As the death toll climbed from dozens to hundreds to perhaps as many as 20,000, it’s clear now that it will not be weeks or months but perhaps years—if ever—before things return to normal in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast—including NASA’s Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi—affected by the storm. While it is still too early to know with any degree of certainty how things will play out, it’s quite likely the hurricane will have both short- and long-term effects on both the shuttle program and the overall Vision for Space Exploration.

The short term

The immediate concern about the hurricane was the damage it did to Michoud. Serious damage to the facility or the hardware stored there would have not only been a serious setback to the shuttle program, it could have also jeopardized proposals all but officially unveiled by NASA to use shuttle-derived external tank technologies in a future heavy-lift launch vehicle. Fortunately, it appears that Michoud escaped serious damage from Katrina: while several buildings have broken windows and holes in their roofs, the buildings are otherwise intact and the hardware they housed, including external tanks either completed or being assembled, also made it through the storm largely unharmed. (Indeed, a picture of the vertical assembly building at Michoud after Hurricane Katrina looked remarkably similar to one taken of the VAB at KSC after Hurricane Frances a year earlier; both buildings were missing portions of the walls and/or roofs, but were clearly intact.) A status report released by NASA late Monday indicated that temporary repairs to damaged roofs were already underway using tarps.

The physical damage to Michoud’s buildings, though, are the least of NASA’s near-term problems. While Michoud itself was spared the worst of the flooding that has plagued much of the rest of New Orleans, the surrounding area has not. NASA reports indicate that the facility is effectively cut off by land from the rest of the area, and is relying on helicopters and boats for transportation. As of Monday, NASA said that crews were continuing surveys of the area for “possible land transportation routes”, a sign that it may still be some time before road access to the center is restored.

An even greater concern is the status of the workforce at Michoud and Stennis (which also suffered modest but not serious damage, and has even been used as a base of operations by FEMA to support relief efforts). Many thousands of homes in the region were damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, displacing families for extended periods—if not permanently. An Aviation Week article cites initial estimates that up to 60% of the homes of Michoud workers have been damaged or destroyed. For them, getting themselves and their families back on their feet will be a far higher priority than building external tanks or other related tasks. Even more ominous is the statement on a Lockheed Martin web site that the company is “still confirming status of some employees” at both Michoud and Stennis.

With NASA leadership sticking with the 2010 retirement date of the shuttle, any delay puts a further squeeze on plans to complete the assembly of the International Space Station.

Combined, all of this suggests that the next shuttle flight, recently rescheduled from this month until March 2005, will be further delayed. NASA had planned to ship three external tanks currently in storage at KSC back to Michoud for modifications to prevent foam loss of the type observed during the launch of Discovery in July. NASA put those plans on hold just before a barge carrying the first of the three tanks left KSC for Michoud. With Michoud not scheduled to reopen before September 26, NASA is now considering shifting the tank modification work to KSC. That, of course, entails a number of logistical issues of its own, not to mention the more basic question of just how to modify the tanks to eliminate the foam shedding problem that engineers thought they had solved prior to Discovery’s launch. If the March 2006 launch window proves untenable, the next window is in May.

The long term

The reverberations from Katrina, though, go far beyond delaying the next shuttle launch. Such a delay, if only a couple of months, will have a ripple effect through the rest of the shuttle manifest. With NASA leadership sticking with the 2010 retirement date of the shuttle announced when the Vision for Space Exploration was unveiled last year, any delay puts a further squeeze on plans to complete the assembly of the International Space Station. While NASA has of late been reticent to give an exact number of remaining shuttle flights—even as that figure slipped from the original 28 to as little as 15–20—a delay of a couple or months, or more, may have shuttle and station planners scrambling to adjust their schedules or even redefine what it means to complete the assembly of the ISS.

These problems may also give support to calls for an early retirement of the shuttle. In the wake of the foam shedding problems encountered on STS-114 in July, there were a new round of editorials calling for NASA to bring the shuttle program to an end now. Those beliefs were bolstered by a minority appendix included in last month’s publication of the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group final report that criticized the agency for failing to heed the lessons of the 2003 Columbia accident. As a Florida Today editorial noted last month, the delay of the next shuttle mission to March 2006 mans that there will have been exactly one shuttle mission in a three-year period after Columbia, at a total cost of $12 billion. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the program is on life support and hanging on by the thinnest of threads, with the chance of even a modest recovery doubtful,” the August 21 editorial notes. Will the further delay—and opportunity for introspection—that may be created by the hurricane help snap that thread?

NASA, one of the few agencies to get a budget increase in the original 2006 budget proposal, could become a tempting target for any remaining budget hawks on Capitol Hill looking for ways to free up money for disaster relief.

Even if the shuttle program continues on—quite likely, given that the program has strong supporters in Congress—NASA may still face new funding obstacles created by the hurricane. Last week Congress approved a $10.5-billion emergency funding measure to support hurricane relief, but all involved know that this is only the down payment for a much larger bill. Some estimates put the total cost of the storm, including both property damage and economic losses, on the order of $100 billion. The federal government will likely have to pay a significant share of that cost, to be borne by the 2006 and future budgets. In addition, the slow response to the disaster by government agencies will likely lead to a reevaluation of disaster planning in general—including not just hurricanes but also earthquakes, tsunami, and other natural disasters—that may require spending billions more. In fact, the US Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has postponed a hearing previously scheduled this week on a relatively minor NASA topic—the need for the agency to maintain its own fleet of passenger aircraft—to hold the first in a series of meetings with Homeland Security officials on hurricane relief efforts.

The potentially tens of billions of dollars more needed for hurricane relief and revised disaster preparedness will have to come from somewhere. Much of it may simply be in the form of additional debt. However, in the weeks and months to come don’t be surprised if some in Congress may seek to impose across-the-board budget cuts on discretionary programs to help pay for some of the hurricane relief costs. (Similar proposals were floated shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to pay for homeland security efforts, but were not adopted.) NASA, one of the few agencies to get a budget increase in the original 2006 budget proposal, could become a tempting target for any remaining budget hawks on Capitol Hill looking for ways to free up money for disaster relief.

One concluding note of caution: it is easy in times like these to assume the worst-case scenario will come true, given all the terrible things that have happened over the last week in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. However, while it’s a useful exercise to imagine what those worst-possible outcomes might be, it is unwise to conclude that they will come to pass. Space exploration may seem like a useless frivolity at a time like this, but for some it can also provide a beacon of hope, a reason to rebuild and carry on the journey.