Michoud facility to craft rocket
New Orleans — NASA’s anticipated path to Mars is being planned across the country, but the road to the red planet will be paved at the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans.
Boeing engineers are designing the massive, 70-ton heavy-lift rocket that will be built at the facility and propel astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit for deep-space missions.
Nearly 90 businesses from 19 states and the District of Columbia converged at Michoud last Wednesday to get an update about the progress of the Space Launch System, of which the rocket is a part. While Boeing alone will double its staff when manufacturing begins, the goal of the industry day was for Boeing to find contractors and subcontractors to do everything from sweep the floors of the 42-acre facility to help with construction of the rockets.
“This is a way for everyone to come together to see if marriages can occur,” Todd May, manager of the SLS program, said of Wednesday’s gathering.
The timeline, though, isn’t forgiving.
While the design phase has been under way, early procurements for manufacturing are next. The first unmanned launch is scheduled for 2017. Sometime next year, some of the largest welding equipment in the world will be in operation at Michoud as work begins on the most powerful rocket in history, May said.
“There are always deadlines,” he said, “but we’re confident we’ll be ready to launch in 2017.”
What will come out of the Michoud facility will be part of NASA’s first exploration-class vehicle since the Saturn V launched astronauts to the moon more than 40 years ago. The difference this time is the capability not only to get to the moon, but to explore near-Earth asteroids and Mars.
The first manned mission is projected for 2021. The core stage rocket will send the Orion module and a crew of up to four astronauts into space.
The 200-plus-foot-tall core rocket that will be built at Michoud is essentially a large gasoline tank and engine, said Kimberly Robinson, a NASA engineer and SLS communications specialist, who is based out of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The core stage rocket is a liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propulsion system that includes four engines that are left over from the defunct space shuttle program.
The SLS program has a $1.2 billion budget until 2017, Robinson said, upping the pressure to produce a quality product.
“We want to get to Mars like nobody’s business,” she said.
Ultimately, though, final missions will be decided by those in the top levels of government in Washington, D.C. “There have been a lot of discussion,” Robinson said. “We’re waiting and listening very hard.”
While other pieces of the overall SLS are being constructed across the country — the solid rocket boosters, for example, will come from Utah — the Orion crew module also will come from Michoud.
Scott Wilson, NASA’s manager for the Orion operations, said two capsules have already been built and undergone ground testing. The first flight test happened recently, he said.
While the capsule will be built at Michoud, it will be outfitted at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the future liftoffs will happen.
Close to 10,000 people worked at the Michoud facility during the space shuttle program when the external tanks were built there. The plant produced 136 tanks during the shuttle program’s lifetime, with the last one leaving in September 2010.
The return of activity at the site and the return to space is something that excites those involved with the new program.
“Space is a wonderful, wacky, sometimes aggravating thing, but we love it,” Robinson said. “We want to take the American people on a very exciting ride.”