TechFest: Boeing updates NASA project

By the summer of 2016, the Michoud Assembly Facility will complete construction on the massive tank that will help power NASA’s new mega-rocket into deep space, an executive with the company contracted to build the component said Wednesday.

“We’re well underway. We’re on schedule. We’re actually in budget,” said Gordon Bergstue, production director for the Boeing Co., which is building the heavy-lift rocket’s so-called “core stage” at the eastern New Orleans plant.

The core stage — a more than 200-foot-tall tank that will store liquid hydrogen and oxygen to power the rocket’s four engines — will be completed more than a year before NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket sets off on an unmanned test mission into deep space.

The Boeing staff at the eastern New Orleans facility will be more than twice its current size by then, said Gordon Bergstue, production director for Boeing operations at Michoud.

Bergstue provided the update on the opening day of the inaugural New Orleans TechNOLAgy TechFest 2013, a three-day science and technology conference being held at the University of New Orleans.

The festival features panels and workshops on alternative energy, aerospace and aviation technology, artificial intelligence and other science specialities.

The festival is expected to draw between 700 and 1,000 people, said Rene Rosenthal, president of the private, nonprofit Louisiana Economic Development Association and a co-producer of the festival.

“We want to create the jobs of the future,” Rosenthal said. “That’s what this is about.”

Bergstue explained Boeing’s aerospace work to a conference room filled with students from the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, St. Augustine High School and Mentorship Academy in Baton Rouge. After his presentation, the students broke into teams to build their own rockets from paper.

In addition to constructing the core stage, the Michoud facility also will install the rocket’s engines.

The new rocket replaces the space shuttle program that ended two years ago.

The shuttle’s external fuel tank was built at the Michoud Assembly Facility, which employed thousands of people from the early 1970s until the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

The Space Launch System is designed to take astronauts beyond the moon to asteroids and eventually to Mars, places the shuttle could not go.

NASA said earlier this month that its new rocket had passed a preliminary design review. Michoud’s work on the rocket is expected to be completed by May 2, 2016, Bergstue said. The core stage will then be shipped by barge to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for a test launch. An unmanned test flight into deep space will follow in late 2017.

By that time, the number of Boeing employees at Michoud will have grown from 160 to 400, Bergstue said. That figure does not include the contractors, government workers and employees of Jacobs Engineering, the building’s facility manager, who also work at Michoud.

“A program like this is not only important to the nation, but it’s important to the community,” Bergstue told the students. “There are a lot of jobs associated with it. We’re really proud to be part of this area and bring this technology and this economic impact back home where it had its birth place many years ago.”