MAF hit by tornado; all personnel safe as damage assessments begin

by Chris Gebhardt

NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) has been hit by a tornado in the early afternoon hours of Tuesday.  The immediate extent of damage and injuries is not yet known, though video and photos on social media show several overturned vehicles and severely damage buildings.  MAF is currently being used by NASA for construction of the core stage of the SLS rocket and by the Sierra Nevada Corporation for construction of the Dream Chaser spaceplane.

Tornado strike:

As a line of severe thunderstorms associated with a spring cold front moved through the southern portions of the United States, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, Louisiana, was hit by a major tornado Tuesday afternoon.

Initial weather reports from doppler radar indicated that the center of rotation for the tornado passed directly overhead of many of the main structures at MAF, with a well-defined debris cloud evident through side scan radar and 134 KTS from gate to gate wind measurements of the tornado that had rotation extending upwards to 30,000 feet.

This radar estimated gate to gate measurement would indicate a wind speed of roughly 150mph.

While a gate to gate measurement does not directly correspond to the Enhanced Fujita scale measurement of tornadoes, it does indicate a significant and powerful tornado.

The official ranking of the tornado will come from National Weather Service ground observations of damage to structures, cars, and vegetation.

At the time of writing, the extent of damage at MAF is unknown – though video posted to social media shows extensive damage to some buildings.

Likewise, any potential injuries were unknown at the time of writing – though it is hoped that early warning weather systems would likely have given MAF employees some time to seek shelter in protected, inner-room areas of MAF’s facilities.

In the general area of New Orleans, there are reports of injuries, but it is not yet known if any of those injuries were sustained by workers at MAF.

NASA’s first statement on the weather event said that “At 11:25 a.m. CST, a tornado impacted NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans,” noted NASA PAO Tracy McMahan.

“At this time, only minor injuries have been reported and NASA employees and other tenants are being accounted for. 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.”

NASA later updated that information, revealing late Tuesday night that all 3,500 employees of MAF were accounted for and that only five of them suffered minor injuries.

The official statement late Tuesday read: “‘Our hearts go out to our employees and the people in New Orleans who have suffered from this serious storm,’ said Keith Hefner, director of the facility. ‘The safety of our team is always our main concern, and we are pleased to report that we’ve identified only minor injuries.’

“The facility is currently closed and will remain closed Wednesday, Feb. 8, with only emergency personnel on site to continue damage assessments. All NASA employees and tenants who are not involved in emergency operations have been evacuated. Local law enforcement helped ensure employees arrived home safely. All utilities and services to the facility are being secured and efforts are underway to restore power.

“At this time, emergency personnel have identified damage to building numbers 103, 350, and additional structures. Building 103, Michoud’s main manufacturing building, has roof damage in several areas. Approximately 200 parked cars were damaged, and there was damage to roads and other areas near Michoud.

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

“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.”

MAF is a historic part of NASA, having been responsible for production of portions of the Saturn V Apollo moon rockets, all of the External Tanks for the Space Shuttle Program, and has recently undergone major upgrades for the construction of the first stage of the SLS rocket.

The facility is also home to construction operations for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, which was recently awarded a CRS2 contract for commercial resupply efforts of the International Space Station beginning in 2019.

This is a developing story, and this article will be updated as more information becomes available.

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MAF History:

Michoud has played a vital role in building rocket hardware for many decades, best known to the current generation for its assembly of the large External Tanks that flew with the Space Shuttle.

Its history ranges as far back as the 1940s, building planes and landing craft during World War II, before switching its focus to building engines for Sherman and Patton tanks for use during the Korean War.

MAF entered the rocket business in 1961, when NASA tasked the facility with the construction of first stages for the Saturn IB and Saturn V launch vehicles, prior to their shipment by barge to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Undergoing a similar transition to what it is today, Michoud had its attention switched to the construction and assembly of the Shuttle External Tanks.

The first of the 136 tanks, ET-1 for STS-1, rolled out of the door in June, 1979 – one of only two tanks to have its thermal protection system foam covered in white paint.

The latter period of its ET production role was filled with both tragedy and success, as STS-107’s External Tank became the focus of investigations into the loss of Columbia, after it shed a large piece of foam from its bipod ramp, critically damaging the ill-fated flagship.

The painful Return To Flight efforts resulted in major modifications to the External Tank, placing new demands on Michoud’s workforce, only for the region to be decimated by a more serious weather event than Tuesday’s, when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

With large numbers of the MAF workforce displaced – some with their homes completely destroyed – the downstream ET manifest was under severe strain, just as NASA were hoping to pick up the pace on ISS assembly missions to complete the Shuttle’s final major role in space.

Under the leadership of key managers, such as the highly respected Wanda Sigur, the workforce rallied, adding shifts and working Technical Interchange Meetings (TIMs) to streamline the production practises, all while improving the safety of the tanks.

Their work proved to be successful, as confirmed by the “clean” performance of the ETs during the vast majority of RTF launches.

The MAF workforce managed to keep the ET schedule on track – aided by some misbehaving orbiters extending processing flows at KSC – and even returned one tank back into the mix. ET-122 was set to fly earlier in the program, before being damaged by Katrina. It successfully flew on STS-134 with Endeavour.

However, by the time the Shuttle Program was slowing down, the workforce already knew the promise of transitioning their careers into the Constellation Program (CxP) were dashed. As as result of CxP’s eventual cancellation, the vast majority of the MAF workforce were laid off as the final External Tank headed out into the Gulf of Mexico.

A large number of workers could have seen their careers saved, had it not been for the delays in implementing the plan for a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV), outlined in the 2010 Authorization Act as the flagship of a realigned exploration program.

MAF leaders had hoped for an announcement within a timescale that may have allowed them to save a large number of workers, as was seen in their actions to extend the period prior to handing out WARN notices, several times, before finally losing patience with the politically motivated stalling tactics in Washington DC.

The impact to the facility was severe, as only a small group of skilled workers remained, spending their days removing equipment to make way for a line of Hollywood production companies to use the wide open floor space to film scenes for movies, such as GI Joe 2 (Retaliation).

The facility is now coming back to life, with commercial and government activities – the latter ranging from Orion hardware, through to its main role focusing on the constuction of SLS stages. Major milestones were being ticked off in recent months, relating to the core stage of the monster rocket.

(Images: Nathan Koga, L2 Renders – L2 ET and MAF sections. Local Media – See links here: )

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