- Associated Press - Monday, February 16, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - When Kelley Easley first arrived at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in 1982 everything was big. Bigger than anything he had ever seen.

It was easy to get lost in the 43-acre eastern New Orleans facility. Easley, then a Louisiana State University engineering graduate hired to work on mechanical design for the NASA Space Shuttle external tank, relied on numbered columns inside to tell where he was.

He saw giant tools in action every day, some the size of a small building. He was in awe the first time he saw a completed 35-ton tank roll out.

“It used to be the external tank was the largest structure we could ever imagine in here,” Easley said.

Not anymore.



Michoud Assembly Facility is taking on its largest NASA project yet, the Space Launch System. The rocket, NASA’s most powerful to date, is designed to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit to again land on the moon, to investigate asteroids and, one day, to walk on Mars. It will top 322 feet once completed, slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty.

NASA has spent $250 million over the past two years to ready the Michoud Assembly Facility.

Half of that paid for the Vertical Assembly Center - a welding machine more than 15 stories high and 78 feet across. It will put together the rocket’s main stage. The 200-foot building’s old foundation was torn out, piles driven 100 feet into ground and a new, reinforced foundation built to support 3 million pounds of machinery.

For all its size, it can control welds down to a thousandth of an inch.

For NASA officials and Michoud workers like Easley, it marks a new era in spacecraft manufacturing, relying more on sophisticated robots than large crews.

Michoud’s workforce is more technically skilled than ever before and ready for a new challenge, said Easley, now production support systems manager for the NASA Space Launch System.

A BIG MISSION

Workers at Michoud helped build the rockets for the Apollo moon missions from 1961 to 1972. From 1980 until the space shuttle program ended in 2011, they built its external tanks.

In July, NASA and Boeing finalized a $2.8 billion contract to develop the avionics systems and core stage of the Space Launch System. The contract extends through 2021.

Don Pollitz, a 24-year Michoud veteran and a construction lead, said he and his co-workers cheered when they learned the new rocket matched the size specifications of spacecraft once built there.

During a tour earlier this year, prototypes of the 22-foot high, 9,000-pound barrels that will become the rocket’s liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks lined one stretch of the facility.

Machinists huddled to inspect the weld on a massive metal dome. Others bicycled between workstations.

Outside, crews repaved a road over a levee to Michoud’s docks after regarding to ensure the rocket’s 212-foot core stage doesn’t bottom out when it’s towed to a barge two years from now.

In addition to such infrastructure improvements, NASA upgraded and restored equipment from the earlier programs, said Pat Whipps, the agency’s resident program manager at Michoud.

“We’re using the best of yesteryear from Apollo and the shuttle program, with a whole lot of brand new technology that is state of the art,” Whipps said. “This is Disneyland for engineers. It’s tremendous.”

Michoud crews will build the Space Launch Systems core stage, including huge tanks for the super-cooled hydrogen and liquid oxygen that will propel the rocket.

Whipps said the rocket’s engines and key electrical systems will be installed at Michoud, which last saw such work during the Apollo missions.

ROBOTS EVERYWHERE

While the jobs are getting bigger, Michould will need 600 to 800 workers compared to more than 10,000 at the height of the Apollo program and 2,500 to 3,500 at the height of the space shuttle program.

More sophisticated tools let crews build spacecraft more quickly and precisely with fewer people, Whipps said.

“Robots are abundant everywhere here for all kinds of things,” he said. “That enables us to cross-pollinate the discipline experts, to move experts from one area to another instead of having dedicated groups at every single tool.”

Whipps said Michoud built up to five shuttle tanks a year. That kind of turnaround schedule required a lot of manpower, he said.

NASA will build one rocket a year for the Space Launch System program, he said.

MINING MOON WATER

In addition to constructing the core stage of the Space Launch System, Michoud workers are building key parts of the Orion vehicle which will carry up to six crew members.

NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin finished testing the first flight version of the Orion this spring. It launched on its first flight Dec. 4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Michoud will complete the first flight version of the Space Launch System core stage in 2016. After engine tests at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, it will go to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral for its first launch in 2017.

NASA also has plans to build a larger rocket, 384 feet tall and able to carry more cargo.

The agency is still working out the details of that project, but once it’s approved it will be headed for Michoud, Whipps said.

The goal is to get to Mars. NASA will need Michoud to get there, he said.

“Michoud has been here for many years and is here to stay, but this is a renaissance,” Whipps said. “We’re really looking forward to not just an evolved, but a revolutionary improvement in the rockets we’re going to build.”

___

Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com

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