Space facilities struggle to get back to business after hurricane

Disaster response teams scouring NASA's Kennedy Space Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Frances have discovered more damage to important shuttle launch infrastructure.

After a helicopter tour of the coastal spaceport Tuesday, KSC Director James Kennedy added a computer center to the growing list of facilities that are uninhabitable. He told reporters that a factory for space shuttle thermal protection systems and the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building also are not safe for workers to enter.

"While it is so much better than we thought it might have been," Kennedy said, "the truth of the matter is, many, many buildings have siding and roofing damage and water leaking…and there's going to be an awful lot of work to repair the damage that's been done." About 800 of the space center's 14,000 federal and contractor employees work in the three hardest hit structures and that is one reason why the NASA installation will not fully be open for business until at least Monday, he said.

But Monday is the day meteorologists expect another hurricane, Ivan, to be threatening Florida. Kennedy said NASA forecasters expect the Atlantic storm to enter the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Keys and curve eastward toward the middle of the peninsula.

Kennedy said he fears that if Ivan strikes, the "priceless" Vehicle Assembly Building will sustain further damage because there is not enough time to make permanent repairs. "I have no question the VAB can be rebuilt to where it will safely and securely process shuttle hardware. The big unknown is what it will take to make the VAB safe and secure again," he said.

Space center engineers revised their damage assessment after a closer inspection Tuesday. They told Director Kennedy that the roof was in danger of collapsing, and that Hurricane Frances had torn away 52,480 square feet of metal siding panels - leaving some 30 percent more "open window" than initial estimates.

The 52-story landmark is used for attaching winged shuttles to their fuel tank and boosters. It was built in 1965 to house Apollo moon rockets during assembly, and is showing its age. Its leaky roof and rusting structural steel are perennial concerns thatwhich NASA has not had sufficient funds to address.

In December 2002, a RandAND Corp. study of options for privatizing the shuttle program noted that the VAB accounted for almost half of some $400 million worth of necessary but unbudgeted shuttle infrastructure maintenance and repairs. A month later, the Government Accountability Office (GAO-04-203) estimated the roof repair cost at $16 million.

Director Kennedy repeated to reporters his concern that storm damage will keep NASA from meeting a March target to resume shuttle flights after the 2003 Columbia disaster. A senior official in Washington said the hurricane's impact on schedules still was being assessed.

The official said the damaged assembly hangar will not be in the "critical path" for shuttle Discovery's launch until November, when the ship's external fuel tank is to be delivered and attached to its two solid-fuel booster rockets inside the structure. The official added that it may be possible for the Vehicle Assembly Building to function with temporary repairs. The space center director said crews Tuesday were installing netting to catch debris falling from the soggy ceiling.

According to initial reports from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to Kennedy Space Center, three unmanned rockets -- an Air Force Titan 4, a Boeing Delta 4 Heavy and a Boeing Delta 2 - escaped damage. They were enclosed in their seaside gantries during the storm. But facilities at Cape Canaveral and nearby Patrick Air Force Base sustained wind and water damage, the commander of the 45th Space Wing told reporters. Brig. Gen. Select Mark Owen said radars and other electronic instrumentation needed to conduct launches on the Eastern Range appear to have survived the storm, but "the proof of the pudding" will come when the systems are powered up and tested.

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