NASA’s Gulf Facilities Survive; Personnel Main Priority

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The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast largely spared two major NASA facilities in the region, but badly disrupted normal operations as well as the lives of the people who work there.

The physical damage to facilities at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and the Michoud Assembly Facility about 24 kilometers east of New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, was relatively minor compared to the devastation that covered cities and towns all along the coastal regions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

That general devastation and the upheaval it caused in the lives of government and contractor employees will impact the operation of both facilities, officials said, and to a degree that is not yet known.

NASA spokesman David Steitz said Sept. 2 that the agency’s focus was still very much on the immediate disaster recovery and that no assessment had yet been made regarding how Katrina will impact the space shuttle manifest or any other agency program.

“I don’t think anybody is worrying about hardware at this point. People are still worrying about the people,” Steitz said.

During the hurricane, Stennis served as a safe haven to an estimated 4,000 people who came there to ride out the storm. By Sept. 2 NASA reported that 1,000 to 1,500 people including NASA employees, contractors and nearby residents were still at the center.

Stennis became a staging area for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and when its runway reopened Sept. 1 it became a receiving point for emergency supplies, including satellite phones, arriving from other NASA facilities around the nation.

Michoud, where the space shuttle external tanks are assembled and sprayed with insulating foam, suffered minor damage, mainly some holes in the roofs of buildings, but also was surrounded by nearly a meter of water.

Speaking during a panel session at the Space 2005 Conference in Long Beach Calif., Tom Marsh, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said the infrastructure and space hardware seemed to be fine, but that his main concern was for the company’s employees. “We’re still trying to find out the impact on our people.”

Lockheed Martin, which operates Michoud for NASA, turned the opening page of its corporate Web site over to the crisis and created a portal where people could get quick access to information on how to get loans and other assistance, and to report in and let the company know their situation . Lockheed Martin announced Sept. 2 it was establishing the Lockheed Martin Katrina Employee Assistance Fund and providing an initial $1 million.

Lockheed Martin said it also had contributed to the American Red Cross, but did not disclose the amount. The company said it would continue to evaluate the needs of its employees and their communities .

Boeing said Sept. 2 it will donate $1 million to the Red Cross for Katrina relief efforts and will match employee and retiree contributions to the Red Cross.

Lockheed Martin spokesman Thomas Greer said the company also is taking steps to ensure that its 2,200 employees in the area continued to receive their basic pay and benefits, and also would ensure that employees in the National Guard and Reserves who were called to active duty in support of the rescue effort also continued to receive their basic pay and benefits.

Greer said Michoud would be closed until at least Sept. 26.

In addition to Stennis and Michoud, Lockheed Martin has employees at defense facilities throughout the area hit by the storm, including the Space and Naval Warfare Information Technology Center, in New Orleans.

Lockheed and NASA officials all said it was too early to determine how the disaster would affect the preparation of external tanks for the next shuttle launch, which is tentatively set for March.

NASA spokeswoman Katherine Trinidad said Kennedy Space Center is assessing what external tank work, if any, could be relocated from Michoud if necessary.

NASA noted on its Web site Sept. 2 that Michoud was still surrounded by flood waters and accessible only by helicopter or boat.

With many Michoud employees presumably left homeless by hurricane and flood damage and the surrounding community in utter disrepair, some Kennedy Space Center managers have been asked to assess options for relocating the external tank work to the Florida facility.

“What they’re trying to do is really study the capabilities here,” NASA Kennedy Space Center spokeswoman Jessica Rye said in a telephone interview. “They’re looking at a variety of particular buildings.”

Rye said that Kennedy does not have dedicated facilities to handle horizontally prone external tanks. However, work on the external tanks could be done in the Vehicle Assembly Building’s transfer aisle, she said, or Kennedy’s Operations and Checkout Building, which was used for Apollo and Spacelab work among others.

Meanwhile, a barge loaded with an external tank — ET-119 — that had been bound for Michoud left Florida’s Port Canaveral Sept. 2 to return to Kennedy instead. The tank will likely be returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building Sept. 7, after the Space Shuttle Atlantis has been transferred back to the Orbiter Processing Facility.

A number of space assets also were used in the rescue and recovery effort.

n Don Kerr, the director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, said his agency is providing satellite imagery at FEMA’s request to help support hurricane relief efforts.

“At the end of the day, there is nothing like some of our capability to provide people a view of things as they are, rather than as they were,” Kerr said. “It’s important for them as they lay out their access plans and logistics plans to understand how things are.”

While data from National Reconnaissance Office satellites is classified, relief agencies have officials with sufficient clearances to view it, Kerr said. Another way of providing classified products to relief workers is through an office at the U.S. Geological Survey that takes classified data and turns it into products that are more easily distributed, he said.

n NASA’s Steitz said all of NASA’s space-based assets, including remote sensing and communications satellites, are being put at the disposal of federal agencies responding to one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

n Iridium spokeswoman Liz DeCastro said traffic on the company’s satellite mobile phone service more than doubled in the first 24 hours after the hurricane hit, and had increased 3,000 percent compared to the previous week.

“FEMA, the Red Cross, the Army, the Coast Guard and utility companies are all calling us. Even the more traditional land and cellular service carriers are calling us — there’s literally calls coming in nonstop. We’re looking in every possible place we can for phones to get out to that area,” DeCastro said.

n Globalstar said in a press release Aug. 29 it was sending as many satellite phones to the affected region as it could find to meet the growing demand from relief agencies and private citizens.

n Chuck Herring, director of marketing at the satellite imagery firm DigitalGlobe, said the demand for imagery had been overwhelming. “We’re doing everything we can to collect for every partner or government agency however we can,” Herring said. “We’ve also been contacted on an individual level by people who have left the area and want to know what kind of damage has been done to their homes.”

Staff writers Brian Berger, Missy Frederick and Jeremy Singer contributed to this article from Washington. Tariq Malik contributed from New York and Lon Rains from Long Beach, Calif.