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Inside the Michoud Assembly Facility, photo by Laura Lorek

Inside the Michoud Assembly Facility, photo by Laura Lorek

NEW ORLEANS – In a former sugar plantation on the eastern outskirts of New Orleans sits one of the city’s hidden gems.

NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility is known as the gateway to space.

Although most people know New Orleans for Mardi Gras, great Jazz music, art, Bourbon Street, gumbo, hurricanes, beignets and chicory coffee, it’s also a hub for rocket scientists. Yet tourists rarely get to see this site. Some of the best and brightest in the space program work at Michoud. But even some of the locals don’t realize the important role this place has played throughout the nation’s space history.

“Every rocket that has taken humans to space since the ‘60s has come through Michoud,” said Malcolm Wood, the facility’s deputy chief operating officer.

“During the Apollo program in the 1960s, Michoud built the first stages of the Saturn 1, 1B and Saturn V rockets,” according to NASA. Later, Michoud designed and built the 15-story tall external tanks for the space shuttles. One of the last tanks, a bright rust colored mammoth sits behind a building onsite, a monument to its past.

But Michoud is preparing for the future.

Major components of the Space Launch System (SLS) NASA’s most powerful rockets that will send astronauts into deep space and eventually Mars, are being built at Michoud, said Roy Malone Jr., director of the facility. Michoud is building the core propulsion stage for the SLS, and they are also building the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, he said.

BxXc_fdCcAAQvCSThe 832-acre campus, which houses one of the nation’s largest manufacturing plants, is about 20 minutes from the French Quarter. The plant has more than 43 acres under one roof. It’s so vast that workers use bicycles to get around.

And it’s evolving, Malone said.

Michoud escaped major damage from Hurricane Katrina thanks to its employees working around the clock to pump water from the grounds, which like most of New Orleans sits below sea level.

At Michoud, Malone is like the mayor of a small city with 3,500 employees based at the facility, only 300 of them belong to NASA. The rest are contractors, employees of other federal agencies or private companies.

“We’re really changing the way we do business with a NASA facility,” he said.

NASA has nearly one million square feet for lease on the site. Its tenants include military contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but also Big Easy Studios, a film company. Big Easy has 250,000 square feet of studios and has filmed the sci-fi flick Ender’s Game, and Planet of the Apes and plans to film the upcoming Jurassic World here.

The site includes the Port of Michoud, which connects to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. NASA recently gave the U.S. Coast Guard half of the port. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture with more than 2,600 employees is one of the largest tenants on site.

Despite its transformation into a multi-purpose facility, Michoud still plays a major role in the space program. And all eyes last Friday were on the site for the dedication of a new facility.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, photo courtesy of NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, photo courtesy of NASA

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana Senator David Vitter and Mississippi Congressman Steven Palazzo and other dignitaries gathered to cut the ribbon on the brand new Vertical Assembly Center, the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world.

“Right here we begin the next great march to the next great exploration to space,” Mayor Landrieu said. It’s a symbol and concrete example of New Orleans’ innovative future, he said.

“This is the beginning of the trip to Mars,” Bolden said. “This is not for any of us sitting here today. What we’re doing and what we’re about is for the young people of this nation. We are on our way to Mars and I really mean that. The state of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans along with neighboring states are key parts of building the core stage of the SLS.”

The Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud, photo courtesy of NASA

The Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud, photo courtesy of NASA

The Vertical Assembly Center is 170 feet tall and 78 feet wide and will be used to build the core stage of the SLS.

“The SLS Program continues to make significant progress,” said Todd May, the SLS program manager.

The NASA SLS rocket is expected to launch in 2018.

“At a fundamental level, space exploration, the mission of NASA, is about inspiration,” Congressman Palazzo said. “This inspiration fuels our desire to push the boundaries of the possible and reach beyond our own pale blue dot. The Space Launch System will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will carry humanity into the next phase of the exploration of our solar system.”

Inside the VAC, photo by Laura Lorek

Inside the VAC, photo by Laura Lorek

The SLS isn’t just drawings on a sketchpad, it’s real, Palazzo said.

“You can see the hardware being built and the components being assembled,” he said.

This is all progress on NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars, he said.

Editor’s Note: This is a field trip outside of the Silicon Hills. Occasionally I will visit another pocket of innovation that relates to all the work being done in Central Texas. I attended a NASA Social last Friday for the ribbon cutting on the Vehicle Assembly Center at the Michoud Assembly Facility. We also travelled to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. I will be writing another story from that trip.