Fly me to the Moon

For close to a half-century, New Orleans has played a key role in the worldwide drama of space exploration. Today, while the space shuttle-related work – for which the local area is best known – winds toward a close, new missions that will include travel to the moon and Mars promise to keep New Orleans involved in national space exploration goals.

Under the umbrella of a program it calls “Constellation,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has laid plans to send humans to the moon by 2020. The idea is to set up a lunar outpost that would enable still-deeper space exploration.
A new launch vehicle named Ares I is the centerpiece of the Constellation program.

NASA chose the Boeing Co., of Huntsville, Ala., to produce the rocket. Last year Boeing announced it will build the upper stage of Ares I at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans. The company will install and test the rocket’s navigation and control systems there as well.

In 2006, Lockheed Martin Corp., which for decades has built the space shuttle’s external fuel tanks at the Michoud plant, won the contract to build the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, which the Ares rocket will carry into space. Lockheed will build the spaceship at the Michoud plant.

Orion’s development coincides with NASA’s missions to complete the International Space Station using the space shuttle, before the shuttle is retired in 2010. That means the local plant will continue to build the fuel tanks until the time of the final flight.

NASA’s Sheila Cloud, who’s directing the transition from the shuttle program to Constellation at Michoud, says that the Ares I and Orion projects together could generate several hundred jobs in the local area. Already some 200 Lockheed employees are doing preliminary work at Michoud related to Orion. The numbers will increase as Orion and Ares move into the next stages of development.

“We anticipate nearly 500 employees will be employed as we get into production and assembly of Orion,” says local Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Linda Leavitt-Bell.
As with past programs at Michoud, the work generates the kind of high-quality jobs that are particularly important in building a vigorous economy. “We have a highly skilled labor force with experience in designing and assembling human spaceflight hardware,” Leavitt-Bell says.

Lockheed Martin is beginning three elements of the Orion project at Michoud:
– a reusable crew module that will house the astronauts;
– an expendable service module; and
–  an expendable heat shield support structure, which protects astronauts upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Leavitt-Bell says Lockheed Martin will rely heavily on capabilities it has developed at Michoud over many years, including advanced welding technology, state-of-the-art composites and tooling and heat shield technology.

Also included in NASA’s longer-range plans is a heavy-lift rocket named Ares V. This rocket, which will employ five liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engines and will require two solid-propellant boosters to launch, will be capable of carrying more than 280,000 pounds of cargo into space. Ultimately it will become the backbone of the mission to the moon, Mars and beyond. While NASA has not yet selected a contractor to build Ares V, the Michoud facility is expected to play a substantial role in its construction.

Soon, evidence of Constellation will become more visible at Michoud as a new five-story, 120,000-square-foot building begins to rise near the plant. The $40 million Research and Development Administration Building will house NASA employees and contractors, along with University of New Orleans personnel who run the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing. The center, which has made important contributions to NASA by developing advanced techniques for using composite and metallic materials, came about through the longtime collaboration between NASA and the state. In February, NASA certified the center for work on the Constellation program. Center director Bruce Brailsford says the certification puts UNO in the company of such leading institutions as California Technical Institute’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Precisely how the changing missions will affect employment at Michoud remains to be seen. Early estimates suggest that the current level of 2,500 jobs could decline by 50 percent because the new missions will require fewer personnel. However, the long-range economic impact of the Michoud campus depends, to a large extent, on how much new, related commerce that state and local interests can attract to the site.

In addition to the NASA work at the main plant, the 800 acres around the Michoud Assembly Facility house local activities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Finance Center and the U.S. Coast Guard, along with the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing. NASA spokeswoman Cloud says the capabilities that will continue to reside at the site and hundreds of additional acres make the area attractive as a research park.

“NASA will continue to capitalize on the extensive manufacturing space and direct access to water transportation that has made Michoud a vital part of America’s space program since its inception,” Cloud says.

Congress recently gave NASA authority to engage in even more flexible arrangements with commercial companies, Cloud adds, which should provide opportunity for a wider range of projects.

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