WASHINGTON - Damage from hurricanes Katrina and Rita has cost NASA three months' work in getting the space shuttle ready for its next flight, but planners said Friday that they should be able to launch next May.
NASA officials also said they have found no single cause for the loss of insulating foam from the external fuel tank during Discovery's launch in July, but they expressed confidence that technicians could prevent a recurrence by changing the way the foam is applied.
"We found several potential contributing factors," said Richard Gilbrech, leader of the NASA team studying the foam loss. "We do not believe any one of these would have caused the release, so we are attacking as many potential contributors as we can."
NASA grounded the shuttle fleet after several pieces of foam broke away from Discovery's external tank, including a 0.9-pound chunk from a ridge of insulation designed to protect cables running along the outside of the tank.
The debris did not hit Discovery, but the incident embarrassed NASA, which redesigned the tank after the loss of the shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated during re-entry in 2003 after a chunk of tank insulation breached the orbiter's heat shielding.
Shuttle project manager Wayne Hale said Friday that the team's work was significantly hampered by Katrina and Rita. NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility, which builds the external tanks, is in New Orleans, and while the installation escaped flooding, the work schedule has been thrown into disarray.
"We lost the equivalent of three months because of the hurricanes," Hale said, but he said the May launch window "is something we can work toward."