CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - NASA's plan to resume space shuttle flights in March could be disrupted by Hurricane Katrina's passage over the Louisiana factory where the shuttles' external fuel tanks are made, officials said on Tuesday.
About 35 employees at NASA's prime tank contractor, Lockheed Martin, were holed up at the Michoud Assembly Facility 15 miles (25 km) east of New Orleans, where they were joined by 28 local fire department officials, throughout Katrina's assault.
With bridges washed away and roads under water, the only way in or out of Michoud is by helicopter so the factory is closed until at least next week, said NASA spokeswoman June Malone, with the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Michoud facilities, however, are showing no immediate signs of critical damage to the eight shuttle fuel tanks or the manufacturing equipment, said NASA's Allard Beutel, with the agency's Washington D.C., headquarters.
So far, NASA has received reports of roof damage, flooding and widespread debris but Beutel said: "We're not seeing tanks floating down the rivers. We're not seeing tanks cracked open."
Employees will be in a better position to gauge the damage when they are able to gain access to the 832-acre (330-hectare) facility.
"For now, our primary concern is with our people," Malone said. "We want to make sure they have food, water, medicine."
The shuttle external fuel tanks have been the focus of NASA's safety upgrades since the 2003 Columbia disaster, which began with a piece of insulating foam falling off the tank during liftoff and hitting the wing.
The shuttle broke apart on re-entry to Earth's atmosphere 16 days later, killing the seven astronauts aboard.
NASA spent 2-1/2 years and more than $1.5 billion to fix the tank and develop repair techniques before returning the fleet to flight on with the shuttle Discovery on July 26.
While the Discovery crew successfully completed a two-week mission to the International Space Station, it's fuel tank shed several large pieces of foam during launch. NASA called off future flights until the new problems were fixed.
Before the hurricane, the agency had hoped to be ready to fly again in March. Now, those plans are uncertain.
"We just don't know what kind of impact this is going to have on our schedules," said Beutel.