NEWSBEAT: Space mission continues

The planned retirement of the nation’s space shuttle program at the end of the decade was a source of concern for local business leaders, since it put into question the future of two major economic hubs for the region with shuttle-related missions. Recently officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) affirmed that both the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans and the Stennis Space Center on the state line in Mississippi will retain integral roles in the next generation of American spacecraft replacing the shuttle.
NASA’s new Constellation program is the blueprint for fulfilling President Bush’s challenge to return humans to the moon and eventually send humans to Mars. The centerpiece of the system is a new crew launch vehicle called Ares I, designed to boost into orbit the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the space capsule that will hold astronauts. Other components of the system will carry equipment into space without astronauts.
“Our work now is in the pre-design stage,” says Constellation Program manager Jeff Hanley during a recent tour of the Stennis facility. “But we hope to see the first manned launch as early as 2012.”
Another NASA facility in the region, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is also involved in Constellation development. Marshall director Steve Cook said the long working relationship between Stennis, Michoud and Marshall should help ensure the smooth development and delivery of the Ares vehicles.
NASA said Stennis will continue to serve as the test site for rocket propulsion, a role it has served for more than 40 years beginning with the Apollo space program’s Saturn V rockets. Meanwhile, the Michoud facility is responsible for building and processing elements of the new launch systems.
Michoud is considered one of the most important manufacturing facilities for the region. The 832-acre facility includes approximately 1 million square feet of industrial space under one roof and is run by the Bethesda, Md.-based contractor Lockheed Martin. Since 1973, Michoud has been dedicated primarily to building the space shuttle’s external tanks – the large, center components which hold fuel for the shuttle’s main engines during its ascent into space.
In addition to testing rocket engines, Stennis is an analysis center for data from 19 NASA satellites that monitor Earth and is home to 34 other agencies and government contractors. Roughly one-third of the 4,500 people who worked at Stennis are Louisiana residents. — I.M.

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