Low Orbit

Michoud is engineering a comeback

SNC’s Dream Chaser on the runway at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center

Photo Courtesy of NASA

For nearly 30 years the eastern New Orleans industrial site loosely known as Michoud was well known for one reason: It was where Lockheed Martin – and its predecessor company, Martin Marietta – built the external fuel tanks used by NASA’s space shuttles.

More than 130 of the massive tanks rolled out of the Michoud Assembly Facility before NASA pulled the plug on the shuttle program in 2010.

Today, a single fuel tank stands outside the main plant at Michoud, serving as both a remnant of an era and a reminder of the difficulty of returning this sprawling industrial park to full productivity.

The task is, indeed, a challenge. But as the past 18 months have shown, the mission may not be impossible.

Recently, officials from Lockheed Martin – one of the major tenants still working at the site – joined with executives from partnering company Sierra Nevada Corporation to announce progress on a new space-related project at Michoud.

The two companies have teamed up to build a new “space plane” that’s designed to shuttle passengers to and from the International Space Station and provide transportation for other types of activities in the realm known as “low Earth orbit.”

The seven-passenger vehicle, which its designers have dubbed Dream Chaser, will look like a little brother to the original space shuttle, with its wings modified into an upward tilt and with a much smaller cargo capacity.

Sierra Nevada Vice President Mark Sirangelo says Dream Chaser is a multipurpose craft that could be used to do equipment maintenance in space, and eventually could become the vehicle of choice for private citizens yearning to take a flight into the great beyond. The company, in fact, is one of the contractors working with Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson to develop Virgin Galactic as the world’s first commercial space line.

“Dream Chaser is a space utility vehicle that will be usable by many people,” Sirangelo says. “It’s going to spend a lot of time running back and forth into space.”

Sierra Nevada contracted with Lockheed Martin to build Dream Chaser after becoming one of three companies vying to develop a new generation of commercial space vehicles for NASA. Both of its rivals – SpaceX and Boeing – are designing wingless capsules that would land by splashing down in an ocean. Dream Chaser, on the other hand, is a “lifting body” craft that would launch from atop an Atlas 5 rocket and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere horizontally, landing on a runway just like any other airplane.

Sirangelo says any runway that can accommodate a Boeing 737 will be able to receive Dream Chaser, meaning it could land in airports throughout the world.

At Michoud, Lockheed will build the Dream Chaser’s frame, wings, rudder and other components using a process that shapes carbon fibers into tough composite materials. When complete, the structure will be shipped to other sites for final assembly of the vehicle.

Because the composite process at Michoud is highly mechanized, the project employs only 15 workers, but the good news for the local economy is, much more work is under way at Michoud.

Dream Chaser is one of three local projects Lockheed Martin has under way. Since 2011, the company has been working on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle program, building a capsule designed for NASA’s use in deep space.

More recently the company has begun building fuel tanks that will hold liquefied natural gas, capitalizing on Louisiana’s shale-fracking industry. The company has a contract from a Finnish company to build two of the 90-foot tanks, and more contracts are likely to follow.

All together, Lockheed’s projects are keeping some 300 workers busy at Michoud.

At the same time, and under the same roof, Boeing is at work on a new Space Launch System for NASA that eventually will carry Lockheed’s Orion capsule into deep space.
Meanwhile, to help replace more of the jobs lost when the old space shuttle program ended, local economic developers are chasing commercial enterprises that might be interested in becoming a tenant at Michoud. Within the last two years, wind turbine manufacturer Blade Dynamics set up shop in the park, as did film and video producer Big Easy Productions.

Activity at Michoud also got a boost from a large new building for the U.S. Coast Guard that houses the base support unit and a new exchange facility, or PX, on the campus.
In addition, Michoud is home to the USDA’s National Finance Center, which employs some 1,300 people; the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which supports projects such as the composite manufacturing for Dream Chaser; and B-K Manufacturing, a provider of services to the aerospace industry.

 Roy Malone, NASA’s director of the Michoud Assembly Facility, says that while the industrial site is a long way from its peak employment of some 6,000 people during the heyday of the space shuttle program, the return of so much activity to the site is a hopeful sign.

Michoud’s current managers are aiming to offset the costs of operating the facility and further grow employment by targeting more commercial tenants. “Now in this factory we have a multi-tenant work force, with NASA programs in progress right across the aisles from commercial activities,” Malone says.

He says that a decade ago, during the latter years of the space shuttle program, slightly more than 3,000 people worked at in various programs at Michoud. “Today we are over 3,000 employees once again,” he says.

 

Bulking up at Michoud

Jacobs Technology Inc. currently oversees the daily operations of the Michoud Assembly Facility, under contract with NASA. The company is working to help increase the number of commercial tenants sharing space with big government contractors and can both pay rent to NASA and tap into the services available on-site, including a testing lab, machine shop capabilities and services of the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing.

Tenants that currently call Michoud home include:
• The Boeing Company, developing the next-generation human-rated deep space rocket, the Space Launch System;
• Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, portions of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser plane and fuel tanks to hold liquefied natural gas;
• National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a partnership of NASA, the state, University of New Orleans and Louisiana State University;
• USDA’s National Finance Center, providing data center hosting and payroll and personnel support for 640,000 federal employees;
• U.S. Coast Guard’s base support unit and exchange facility;
• Blade Dynamics, a UK manufacturer of advanced wind turbine rotors;
• B-K Manufacturing, an Alabama provider of hardware and components for government and private contractors.


 

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