New Scientist says Lockheed Martin’s space shuttle external fuel tank factory got through Hurricane Katrina with only minor damage. That leaves the space shuttle program free to continue boondoggling along toward its next in-flight disaster. If it can ever get off the ground again.

SpaceRef has just leaked the text of a speech NASA head Mike Griffin is to deliver to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) tomorrow. Griffin will confirm that the shuttle won’t be cancelled any time soon and that the agency’s next-gen spaceships will be based on shuttle technology. Seems to me there’s more politics at work there than sound management; lots of people making lots of money off shuttle don’t want their cash cow to die, no matter what the cost to taxpayers or astronauts.

Meanwhile, the release of NASA’s blueprint for its Vision for Space Exploration has been held up as government officials squabble of how much it’s going to cost, according to NASA Watch. NASA can’t pull off President Bush’s scheme to send people back to the moon and then on to Mars while continuing to pour billions of dollars into the shuttle; the money’s just not there.

So where does that leave NASA? Firmly on the ground as far as I can see, unless a side bet Griffin briefly mentions in his speech gains some traction:

“As I stated earlier this year, one strategy NASA will employ to meet our future needs is to utilize, to the fullest extent possible, commercially-developed cargo resupply and, ultimately, crew rotation capabilities for the International Space Station. Indeed, we will issue this fall a request for proposal for such capabilities, with the development to be done on a commercial basis, much like that in the commercial communications satellite market. This is a priority for NASA. Utilizing the market offered by the International Space station’s requirements for cargo and crew will spur true competition in the private sector, will result in savings that can be applied elsewhere in the program, and will promote further commercial opportunities in the aerospace sector.”

In other words, Griffin wants to hire entrepreneurial companies as a hedge against the price gouging of the big aerospace firms that now have a lock on NASA’s spaceflight operations. It’s a good plan, but Griffin’s got a lot of political inertia working against him. The moment of truth will come with this request for proposal to be issued this fall. Hopefully it will represent a substantial opportunity for the emerging commercial spaceflight industry to work side by side with NASA. If not, I’m going to return my full focus back to commercial spaceflight–that’s where the real action’s going to be.