Saturn B rocket booster being transported from Michoud, circa 1963.

The multi-billion-dollar Orion Project � a space program aiming at �infinity and beyond� � will bring hundreds of new jobs to add to the 2,000 Lockheed-Martin jobs currently at the Michoud Assembly Facility. New Orleans� success as a player in the space race has been a long-term economic boom, a remarkable achievement that invites superlatives.

�You could put five Superdomes inside, and still have room for parking,� remarked Marion LaNasa, director of communications for Lockheed Martin, describing the main building at Michoud, which was the largest such structure in the world when it was completed in the 1940s. Although today we associate Michoud with the space program, development in that area dates to the early days of the city.

The land where Michoud stands was once part of a grant by the King of France to an early New Orleanian, Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent, who lived there before his death in 1796. Antoine Michoud, a sugar planter, purchased the land in 1827 � he even maintained Gentilly Road at his own expense so he could have access to town. By 1910, Michoud�s French heirs sold the land to the New Orleans Drainage Company � one of many private developers with schemes to drain swamps and build canals. The company defaulted on its loans, and in 1923, another developer, Edgar deMontluzin, acquired the land.

After America entered World War II, there was a rush to fill the country�s military needs. The U.S. Maritime Commission purchased some of the Michoud land in the early 1940s for a cargo ship building facility, and Andrew Higgins (whose landing craft were so vital on D-Day) was asked to build and operate a factory there, since Michoud, then as now, was easily accessible by land, by water and by air.

In 1942, Higgins was given a contract to build 200 ships � but increased production elsewhere forced the government to cancel his contract within months. Frustratingly, Higgins was next given a contract to convert his Michoud factory and build airplanes, and this contract was also quickly cancelled after Higgins completed only two planes. The Michoud factory found other wartime uses � some graphite parts for the atomic bomb project were manufactured there and Higgins built two radically designed helicopters. In November 1945, the plant shut down and the War Assets Administration leased the facility to the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans (the Dock Board.)

By the time the Korean War arrived, there were 42 small manufacturers leasing space at Michoud when the Defense Department took back the plant and converted it to a factory for tank engines operated by the Chrysler Corporation. By 1951, there were 2,000 workers there, but at the end of the Korean conflict the plant was again closed, over the strong protests of Louisiana�s powerful congressional delegation, including Sen. Allen J. Ellender and U.S. Reps. Hale Boggs and F. Edward Hebert.

What would save Michoud was America�s race against Russia to the moon. On September 7, 1961, Michoud was selected as the facility where the boosters for the moon rocket would be built. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration signed contracts with the Boeing Corporation to build part of the Saturn B rocket, and with the Chrysler Corporation to build part of the Saturn launch vehicle. The decision to go with the Saturn rocket was made in 1962, and the activity at Michoud got underway.

It seems that anything having to do with the space program tends to need special descriptions. Today, LaNasa can say of Lockheed Martin�s Michoud product, �the fuel tank of the shuttle can deliver fuel at 1,000 gallons a minute � that can fill up a backyard swimming pool in 25 seconds.� Back in the 1960s, when the Chrysler and Boeing Corporations were first beginning space work at Michoud, Ken Gormin snagged the Chrysler employment account for Bauerlein Advertising. Ken Kolb, then an account executive at Bauerlein, recalls analogies like �the thrust of a Saturn rocket was equal to 100,000 Chrysler V-8 engines being revved at the same time.� Kolb also mentioned one of the engineering jobs he wrote an ad for, involving work on �the inelastic sloshing behavior of a large, complex, booster structure.� Where Michoud was concerned, there were a lot of difficulties in translation.

Mary Zervigon remembers that the Chrysler Corporation had to take corporate action to have a holiday for employees on Mardi Gras (they gave up Memorial Day) and another corporate rule needed changing so that workers could have air-conditioned cars.

The 5,100 Boeing workers transferred here from Seattle found there was no familiar Camp Fire Girls program for their daughters � so in 1966, the Greater New Orleans Council of Camp Fire Girls was colonized by the Camp Fire program in Bogalusa, the closest one in the state. New Orleans Camp Fire still exists, according to board member Timothy Brechtel, offering in-school services.

Patrick Rogan, then a recent physics graduate of Tulane University, took a job in 1963 with the Chrysler Corporation and was happy to learn that, for the birth of four children during his employment, �we hardly paid enough for a box of Kleenex.� Rogan credits his amazingly good health insurance coverage to the fact that Chrysler�s Detroit contract with the United Auto Workers union made benefits apply to him and some other Chrysler non-union employees.

Rogan worked in the reliability test lab, �we tested components that went on the Saturn S1B, things like pumps and motors and valves and pressure sensors.� Actually, the labs refurbished and used the old tank engine test structures from the 1950s. At times the labs ran round-the-clock shifts, proving the usefulness of the Morrison�s Cafeteria on the site. (Today, Aramark operates two cafeterias at Michoud.)

Rogan spent eleven years at Michoud, and recalls that non-space projects were undertaken in his last years, including a U.S. Navy Contract for a toilet that flushed with mineral oil � �It was called the AquaSans.�

He admits that at Michoud he had to become a defender of his city. Most of the employees had been transferred here and there was some culture shock. Rogan says, �a lot of them were for the Riverfront Expressway: plow under the French Quarter, it�s dirty.� Strangely enough, their feelings would change: �they detested it, and then they really loved it here … When the layoffs occurred, if they could find a job here, they took one. Very few people picked up and went back to Detroit without considerable sadness.�

Michoud employees today are a resilient lot and survived Katrina remarkably well, even if 47 percent of them (including LaNasa) lost their homes. �By October 31 we had recalled all our workers,� LaNasa said. A �ride-out crew� of 36 stayed and operated pumps to keep the facility dry during the storm. Afterwards �thousands of military personnel were located here as a jumping-off point.�

After Katrina, the future looks good. If the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) is closed, Michoud tanks can still float to Florida via the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River, LaNasa says. The space shuttle program will keep them busy until 2010, and the newly announced Orion Project will be a great boon.

At Michoud, above the sky is still the limit!