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Tornado damages NASA facility in New Orleans

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Pictures show significant harm to the Michoud Assembly Facility

Gregory Rugon looks for his glasses at the spot where he took cover in his home after a tornado hit his Warren Drive home, in the New Orleans East section of New Orleans, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

On Tuesday, February 7th severe thunderstorms and multiple tornadoes passed through New Orleans, Louisiana, causing significant damage to the area — including communities that were hit by Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago. The storms also smashed through NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, one of the largest manufacturing plants in the world that the space agency uses to create parts for its rockets and spacecraft.

NASA says that a tornado hit the facility at 12:25PM ET and there have been no serious injuries. “At this time, only minor injuries have been reported and NASA employees and other tenants are being accounted for,” NASA officials said in a statement. “There is still a threat of severe weather in the area and emergency officials are continuing to monitor the situation to ensure the safety of onsite personnel. The onsite Michoud emergency response team is also conducting damage assessments of buildings and facilities.”

The agency clarified the situation soon after, reporting that all 3,500 employees had been accounted for, with five suffering minor injuries. In a statement, NASA reported damage to multiple structures — including Michoud’s main manufacturing building — as well as around 200 parked cars. Staff have now been evacuated, and the facility will remain closed on Wednesday while emergency personnel continue damage assessments.

“Michoud has a comprehensive emergency plan that we activated today to ensure the safety of our people and to secure our facilities,” facility director Keith Hefner said. “I am proud of our dedicated team onsite who are successfully implementing that plan.”

Overseen by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Michoud has been the birthplace of many key pieces of hardware the space agency has used to get people into space. The first stages of NASA’s Saturn V rockets were built at Michoud, and the site was also used to stack portions of the Space Shuttle’s large, orange external fuel tank. Today, the major components of NASA’s next big rocket, the Space Launch System, are being constructed at Michoud, to get the vehicle ready for its first flight scheduled for 2018. It’s also where contractors are putting together the Orion crew capsule — the vehicle that NASA wants to use to send people into deep space and onto Mars.

NASA maintains that all of its spacecraft hardware at Michoud is safe. “Hardware for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, and the Orion spacecraft is secure, and no damage from the storm has been identified to hardware or the barge Pegasus docked at Michoud,” the space agency said in a statement.

Damage to external tank seen behind a parked car at Michoud.
Photo: NASA

However, it looks like a historic space artifact at the facility didn’t make it. The first Space Shuttle external tank to ever stand on a launchpad was destroyed during the storm, according to CollectSpace. Called the external tank-ground vibration test article (ET-GVTA), the tank was used for early vibration tests of the Space Shuttle. ET-GVTA was not covered in the orange insulating foam like the external tanks that would later fly to space, but was instead painted white.

There were plans to turn ET-GVTA into a functional flight tank, but that never happened, according to CollectSpace. Instead, the tank was disassembled at Michoud and was put into outdoor storage outside one of the facility’s main manufacturing buildings. NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the fate of the external tank.

More pictures of the damage at Michoud are featured below:

For reference, here is a video of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility prior to the storm:

Update February 8th, 3:50PM ET: This article was updated to include information about damage to an external tank.