NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin said yesterday the next space shuttle flight will probably not launch until May 2006, an additional two-month delay caused by the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the space agency's centers along the Gulf Coast.
Griffin said "heroic" efforts by employees at Mississippi's Stennis Space Center and the Michoud Assembly Facility, in New Orleans, prevented either installation from suffering serious storm damage.
But 20 percent of Stennis employees and 40 percent of Michoud employees are still without homes, he said. Stennis, which tests shuttle main engines, reopened last week, while Michoud, which builds the shuttle's external fuel tanks, is expected to resume full operations next week.
"We're looking at May," Griffin said, adding that if it had not been for a 37-person "hold-down" team that had remained at Michoud to keep generators and pumps running during Katrina, the shuttle might not have been able "to fly again at all."
"They kept the diesels running, which kept the pumps running," Griffin said at a meeting with members of The Washington Post's editorial and news staffs. "You fly over it and you can see Michoud is an island of green grass in a sea of mud. The eye [of Katrina] passed right over it."
Despite the extra delay, Griffin said NASA still planned to fly the shuttle 18 times by 2010, using 17 missions to complete assembly of the international space station and one to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope. He said "our flight history tells us" that the agency has a 90 percent chance of meeting the schedule, even with the next launch in May.
"Of course, if additional bad things happen, we'll reevaluate," Griffin said. Houston's Johnson Space Center, headquarters of NASA's human spaceflight program, closed at 3 p.m. Eastern time yesterday in anticipation of Hurricane Rita coming ashore at nearby Galveston, Tex.
NASA grounded the space shuttle for a 21/2-year redesign and program reevaluation after the 2003 Columbia tragedy, then grounded it again this summer after the external tank of space shuttle Discovery shed several large pieces of foam insulation during its July 26 launch.
Planners at first said they expected to fly again this month, then let the date slip to March because of difficulties in finding out why the tank lost a 0.9-pound chunk of foam from the "protuberance air load," or PAL, ramp, a ridge of insulation that protects cables and lines from aerodynamic stress during launch.
"If it wasn't for the PAL ramp, we'd have flown this month," Griffin said, because engineers quickly found and fixed the causes for the other foam losses. The PAL ramp was "unexpected," he said. "It was an engineering mistake."
Nevertheless, there has been "quite a bit" of progress, he said. "We know why the foam came off." He did not elaborate.
The shuttle's shortcomings have prompted some lawmakers to question the wisdom of continuing to spend money on the 25-year-old orbiter instead of hastening development of a next-generation spacecraft, scheduled to be flight-ready in 2012.
"Maybe the risks are too high," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a longtime advocate of human spaceflight, said in a recent interview. "I'm open to that discussion."
Griffin acknowledged that "we're in a hole" but said it would not be cost-effective to abandon the shuttle because it would "decimate the workforce" needed to build the new spaceship and manage the spaceflight program, as well as "cause a lot of [other] collateral damage" that "wouldn't save much money."
Instead, he said he would use the new "crew exploration vehicle" to complete assembly of the space station if the shuttle cannot finish the job by 2010. Griffin has consistently refused to contemplate extending the shuttle's life beyond then.
"It will cost money, but we can do it," he said. "If we intend to keep our commitments" to international partners in the space station, and "are unable to finish with the shuttle, then you will use the new system," he added. "It comes down to writing the check."