NASA and Lockheed Martin officials remain optimistic that the disruption in space shuttle external tank work caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita will not result in significant delays in getting the orbiter fleet flying again.

Work at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the tanks are built, is resuming in spite of the damage it sustained in Katrina, poor conditions in the the surrounding area, and the fact that a large portion of the work force remains without housing.

Only a fraction of the roughly 2,000 people who work at Michoud have returned to their jobs, said Marion LaNasa, a spokesman for external tank manufacturer Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

NASA spokesman Martin Jensen said it will launch the shuttle no earlier than March, but agency officials have said the launch likely will not take place before May 2006. Internal NASA memos have suggested the flight could be delayed beyond autumn of 2006.

NASA shipped external tank 119, which it plans to use for the next shuttle mission, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Michoud Sept. 27. The hardware was expected to arrive Oct. 2 , Jensen said.

That tank was being prepared for flight at Kennedy when NASA officials elected to modify it following the foam-shedding incident during the Space Shuttle Discovery mission over the summer. The effects of the storms led NASA to consider doing the modification work at Kennedy, but agency officials ultimately decided to stick with the original plan despite the conditions at Michoud.

Temporary repairs have been made to the facility’s roof, but conditions are still primitive, according to LaNasa. The facility regained power the week of Sept. 19, Jensen said.

LaNasa said water has to be brought in , and there are some questions about the conditions of the sewer lines. “We’re not in a position to support the entire 2,000-person work force previously on the site,” he said.

As of Sept. 28, 240 employees had returned to the site, and Lockheed Martin was contacting specific individuals with the skills necessary to resume production on the tanks. The company hopes to double the amount of workers on site by the end of October, LaNasa said.

“The intention is to not have it delay external tank work,” LaNasa said. “The people we’re bringing in are the priority folks working on external tank production. We’re putting the focus on what we believe is the priority, the work on the next flight tank, while at the same time working as hard as we can to get all of our employees back in place as soon as possible.”

Employees whose work is less critical to external tank assembly are being relocated to other areas, LaNasa said.

Lockheed Martin is exploring temporary housing options for its employees, nearly half of whom were left homeless by the disaster, and also is reviewing public transportation options, LaNasa said.

One possibility discussed by NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is stationing a barge near Michoud to temporarily house some 400 people , but it remains unclear whether that will happen.

NASA officials originally estimated the damage at Michoud and Stennis Space Center, Miss., at about $1 billion, and Jensen declined to update estimates of the damage.

Employees began returning Sept. 19 to Stennis, which sustained roof damage from Hurricane Katrina, but no damage from Hurricane Rita.

Johnson Space Center in Houston, meanwhile, reopened Sept. 27, after Hurricane Rita’s approach prompted NASA to close the center Sept. 21 . While Johnson was closed, all control functions for the international space station were handled by Russia.