From Muskrats to Moonships

NASA in Michoud

In September of 1961, NASA selected the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East as its site to produce rocket ships.

The original 34,000-acre wooded tract was first deeded to a Louisiana resident in 1763 by the King of France. The property was divided over time, and a portion of the site was acquired by Royal Street art dealer Antoine Michoud in 1827, who operated a sugar cane plantation and refinery there until his death in 1862. His family continued to operate the refinery – whose two smokestacks still stand on the Michoud facility grounds – into the 20th century.

During the 1940s, 832 acres of the property were acquired by the U.S. Maritime Commission to be used for wartime construction. Aircraft construction began in 1943 in what was at the time the world’s largest building (43 acres under one roof). The plant was closed in 1945 as the war ended, but reopened from 1951-1953 for Korean War tank productions. It remained closed until 1961, when NASA acquired the facility from the Department of Defense, bringing large-scale employment and money to the city of New Orleans.

Under NASA, the facility was used for the design and assembly of large-scale aerospace vehicles, in particular the Saturn booster rockets, the production of which continued until the early 1970s. In July 1969, when man first landed on the surface of the moon, it was on a Michoud-built Saturn 1C booster.

In the 1970s, Michoud became the production site of the Space Shuttle External Tank. In 1979, the first completed external tank was sent to join the orbiter Columbia for the inaugural flight of the space shuttle two years later.

The “official” City of New Orleans holiday card from Mayor Victor H. Schiro in 1962 recognized the great value that NASA coming to Michoud represented for New Orleans. By 1966, there were many changes to the Michoud site; however, two things remained unchanged: a pair of chimneys in front of the Administration Building and remnants of the old and never-successful sugar plantation. These ungainly artifacts served as reminders of Michoud’s checkered past. Never a successful plantation, its sometime-production of lumber and other local resources from the swampy environs helped generate the local slogan, “from muskrats to moonships.”
Photo provided courtesy of New Orleans Public Library.

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