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NASA Michoud, UNO, and Engineering

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Joined: 10 Dec 2005
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Location: New Orleans, LA

PostPosted: Sun Feb 11, 2007 9:57 pm    Post subject: NASA Michoud, UNO, and Engineering Reply with quote

News article from Times Picayune

UNO Engineering taking advantage of opportunities at NASA Michoud Facility

The Michoud Assembly Facility is retrofitting itself for its multitasking role in producing the next generation of NASA's spacecraft
Sunday, February 11, 2007
By Ronette King

This summer the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will choose a company to build the rocket for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, a manned space capsule that will take astronauts to the moon and perhaps on to Mars.

Work on the Ares I rocket -- which will be assembled locally at the Michoud Assembly Facility -- promises to aid the economic recovery of eastern New Orleans by preserving hundreds of high-paying jobs as the facility's work on the space shuttle program begins to wind down. The Ares I, just one of many projects that will be under way at Michoud in the coming decade, also signals a step toward NASA's new plan for the facility.

By 2016, NASA expects to have transformed Michoud from a site that concentrates on assembling one spacecraft component under the direction of a primary government contractor to one that is working on multiple projects for the space agency simultaneously and possibly under the direction of several different contractors, said Patrick Scheuermann, Michoud's chief operating officer.

NASA has already determined that in addition to Ares I, all of the spacecraft in the so-called Constellation program, which encompasses a fleet of next-generation launch vehicles, will be assembled at Michoud.

Designating Michoud as a primary spacecraft assembly site saves NASA money by relieving each of its contractors of the costs of maintaining individual assembly plants.

The move also promises to turn Louisiana into a hotbed of spacecraft-related assembly as NASA contractors and subcontractors migrate to the area.

"Louisiana could be to NASA what China is to Nike," said Howard McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., who studies public policy and financial management and their role in the country's space policy.

Space-shuttle stalwart

The Michoud plant has been part of the space program since 1961, when NASA began producing the Saturn booster rocket there. For the past 30 years the Michoud plant, under the direction of Lockheed Martin, has concentrated on building external fuels tanks for the space shuttle.

This year the Michoud plant will ship out five tanks, the most it has delivered in a decade, Scheuermann said. For the past several years Michoud has shipped about three tanks a year. But NASA plans to phase out the shuttle, and Michoud's work on the external fuel tank is expected to wind down by 2010.

Still, NASA officials say the agency's presence in the metro area is here to stay, despite the city's post-Hurricane Katrina obstacles. Last week 120 NASA managers came to New Orleans for a quarterly meeting on the Constellation program, and about half of them visited Michoud, where workers already are making improvements to the site so that it will be ready for the new projects it is expected to house, Scheuermann said.

The plant was damaged by Katrina's wind and rain but stayed dry during the hurricane thanks to a dedicated group of staffers who stayed behind, plus a diesel-powered pump station that kept the buildings and surrounding land dry. Michoud workers are now installing stronger roofs on buildings to better withstand storms, planning a second pump to keep the plant dry in case of another major hurricane, and preparing the factory for its first refitting in decades.

The Orion crew vehicle and the Ares I rocket will be the first of the new projects worked on at Michoud, but the Constellation program also involves other spacecraft and a successor rocket known as the Ares V.

NASA is devoting its best technology to the program, said Steve Cook, director of NASA's exploration launch projects office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which is overseeing the Constellation program.

"That's why Michoud is critical, because it is NASA's large, cryogenic service construction location and they have long history from the Saturn I to the Saturn V, the external tank, now Ares I and Ares V," Cook said.

The same attributes that led NASA to choose Michoud as a manufacturing site decades ago are still there, Cook said. The Michoud plant has a 43-acre factory building under one roof. The space is where the external fuel tanks are currently built, but the plant still has ample room to handle other construction jobs, Cook said. Michoud also has deepwater access -- an amenity that now allows the external fuel tanks to be moved by barge to Florida's Kennedy Space Center -- and proximity to Stennis Space Center near Slidell, where engines are tested, Cook said.

Next phase blasting off

In August, Lockheed Martin won the contract to build Orion, the first component of the Constellation program. The Apollo-like capsule will hold six astronauts.

The contract for the Ares I, the rocket that will help launch Orion, will be the next major component of work and will be awarded later this year. Lockheed, in partnership with Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne Inc. and Alliant Techsystems, has said publicly that it will bid on the Ares work. So has Boeing Corp.

Both recognize the importance of both Ares and the Constellation project for New Orleans.

"That's important for this area," said Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of space exploration at Boeing. "New Orleans has been given an opportunity to really change its character from an industrial standpoint."

Jobs in the aerospace industry "are well-paid and (will) bring a lot of well-educated people to come work here," said Shaw, who was in New Orleans last week for a planning meeting related to the company's bid to build the Ares I. "The demand for infrastructure including housing, schools and other services is an opportunity for New Orleans to remake its type of industry," he said. In November, Boeing opened an office at the University of New Orleans, where it is working on its Ares bid.

Lockheed has a long history of serving the aerospace industry, particularly at Michoud, where it has overseen production of the external fuel tank, said Glynn Adams, the company's manager of business development at Michoud. Lockheed, along with its partners, opened an office in New Orleans to support its work on the Ares bid.

Both Lockheed and Boeing officials say it is too early to determine what employment levels will be if they win the Ares contract.

Michoud now employs 2,000 people.

The facility has snagged one other construction job separate from the Constellation program. NASA picked two companies for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project to help private companies build vehicles to deliver crew and cargo to the space station. One of those contractors, Rocketplane Kistler, will integrate and assemble its commercial vehicle at Michoud for launch in 2008.

Attracting satellite firms

Michoud's new role as a multiproject facility could have a positive economic impact on New Orleans. Subcontractors working for the main contractors leading the work for NASA tend to migrate to the area where work is being done, industry observers said. So the company that supplies the aluminum used to build the tanks could set up here, for example.

And once a labor market comprising the specialized workers needed for spacecraft assembly gets built up, it grows synergistically, McCurdy said.

"If people are thinking that could happen, it is possible," he said. "You get a labor market and so it grows of its own accord. Once it attains that critical mass, it's where you go."

Asked whether large subcontractors and suppliers working with his firm might locate to the New Orleans area, Boeing's Shaw put it succinctly.

"I'm a firm believer in you should show up where your check is written," Shaw said.

UNO is carving out a role to support the local aerospace industry and is making engineering a centerpiece of its post-storm redevelopment plan, said Russell Trahan Jr., dean of its College of Engineering. Historically UNO annually awarded about 150 undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees in several disciplines, including civil, environmental, electrical, mechanical and marine engineering as well as naval architecture.

Trahan said UNO operates the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a research and education center inside the Michoud plant. He said UNO is finalizing a deal to allow Boeing to use equipment in the center to work on its Ares I bid.

The center has a fiber placement machine that uses robotically controlled carbon fiber placement to make complex shapes and curves. It also has a friction stir-welding machine, a robotically controlled welding apparatus that uses motion rather than heat to combine pieces of metal, Trahan said.

The friction stir-welding machine was damaged when sections of the Michoud plant's roof peeled off during Katrina, Trahan said. The machine was disassembled and shipped back to the manufacturer, and FEMA recently told the university the agency would cover the repair costs because the equipment is owned by UNO. The welder is expected to be reinstalled in May, Trahan said. That will allow Boeing and any other bidders to use the equipment to make sample pieces of the material to be used on the Ares I rocket. Lockheed produced a sample piece of friction stir-welded metal to build crew exploration vehicles with its Orion bid, Lockheed's Adams said.

The new generation of space vehicles will use machinery and manufacturing techniques that are less-labor intensive, therefore reducing production costs, McCurdy said. However, budget constraints could slow the Constellation program down, he said.

NASA's $17 billion annual budget isn't expected to grow much in the coming years. It must cover the cost of five shuttle missions a year plus the continued support of the International Space Station. The fiscal 2008 budget plan includes $2.2 billion to build Orion and the Ares I rocket to carry it.

NASA's own engineers are designing the new crew capsule and rockets, rather than leaving that to the contractor, Cook said. Therefore, most of the private-sector job creation will come on the manufacturing side when contract employees take NASA's prototypes and turn them into actual space ships and rockets.
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