NASA official pleased with spacecraft work at Michoud

The cavernous Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans has largely been a quiet place since the end of the Space Shuttle program.

But activity is slowly returning to the site as NASA contractors ramp up production of the rocket that will help propel astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit for deep-space missions, as well as the module that will hold a crew of up to four people.

Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, toured the 42-acre facility Friday morning and said she was pleased with what she saw.

At various points inside the facility, crews are busy at work on the Space Launch System, a 70-ton heavy-lift rocket, and the Orion module, which will be their home in outer space. The space program hopes its next mission will take astronauts to Mars.

“I just couldn’t be more pleased. This is the heart and soul of our program,” Garver said. “It (Michoud) is not quiet compared to a few years ago.”

Garver described the SLS and Orion projects as the “cornerstone” of NASA and Michoud.

Officials hope to complete the first test orbit of the Orion module next year. The SLS is expected to have its first test launch in 2017.

If everything goes according to plan, the first manned mission using the new launch system and Orion will be in 2021.

But to make that possible, NASA needs money.

Administration officials have requested a $17.7 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Despite budget struggles in Washington, Garver said she is hopeful the request will be met to keep the program on track.

Orion and the SLS 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.

“Astronauts will be going to an asteroid to better understand these objects,” Garver said. Those objects holds the key to life in the universe, she said, and need to be researched, something that can only happen with the Orion program in operation.

The 200-plus-foot-tall core rocket Boeing is building at Michoud is essentially a large gasoline tank and engine. Other pieces of the overall SLS are being constructed across the country, such as the solid rocket boosters that will come from Utah.

Two Orion capsules have already been built at Michoud. While the capsule will be constructed here, it will be outfitted further at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the future liftoffs will happen.

Between 500 and 600 people will initially work on the two components at Michoud, Garver said.

“That could get a little bit bigger,” Roy Malone, director of the Michoud Assembly Facility, said of those numbers.

The return of work for NASA and the people that come with those projects is a welcome addition to the site that once was a small city under one roof.

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.

After the end of the Space Shuttle program, Michoud became home to several tenants from the private sector, but its work force dropped greatly.

Right now about 80 percent of the plant is occupied, according to Malone. Space-exploration work takes up about 60 percent of the site, Malone has said. The other occupied 20 percent houses tenants including Lockheed Martin and Blade Dynamics, which builds wind turbines.

But to see engineers at Michoud at work building the next generation of spacecraft that will send astronauts into the heavens is a welcome site to NASA officials.

“It’s almost like a cathedral for me and a lot of us,” Garver said.