CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Hurricane Katrina has indefinitely idled the Louisiana factory that assembles space shuttle fuel tanks and NASA said on Friday it is looking to see if other facilities can make critical tank repairs.
NASA had tentatively planned its next shuttle mission for March, but additional delays were likely due to interruptions in the tank repair work that must be done before the shuttle can fly again.
The agency was primarily focused on trying to find the employees and contractors who work at the assembly plant in Louisiana, as well as a field center in Mississippi where space shuttle engines are tested.
Both sites were in the path of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed huge sections of the U.S. Gulf Coast when it blasted ashore with 145 mph (232 kph) winds on Monday.
"We're getting into contact with people," said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel. "We're trying to take a head count."
NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans and the Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, appear to have sustained roof and water damage in the storm. Neither was expected to resume operations soon.
Roads to Michoud were still under water and hundreds of people employed by plant operator Lockheed Martin lost their homes in the hurricane.
The factory has been the focus of NASA's efforts to fix shuttle fuel tank problems that were blamed for the fatal 2003 Columbia accident.
Michoud is about 15 miles (24 km) east of New Orleans and depends on the city for power, water and other basic services. The plant has emergency generators and other backup systems, Beutel said.
But with a long-term shutdown likely, NASA has begun looking at what work can be shifted to other centers, including the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
NASA flew Discovery in July on its first shuttle mission since the Columbia accident, but Discovery's tank also shed large pieces of foam. Managers promptly suspended future flights until additional work could be done on the tanks.
A chunk of falling foam damaged Columbia's wing during launch and triggered its breakup in the atmosphere during a landing attempt 16 days later. All seven astronauts aboard died.
NASA has three of the external fuel tanks at the Kennedy Space Center, but all three need modifications to reduce the foam-shedding risk before they can be used.