For more than a quarter century, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans has been known primarily for the giant space shuttle external tanks produced there.

But that is about to change.

Before the last external tank rolls out of this NASA-owned,

contractor-operated manufacturing facility in early 2010, major elements of the next U.S. system for sending humans and their gear into space should be under construction there.

Likewise, Rocketplane Kistler, the Oklahoma City-based firm developing the K-1 reusable rocket with the help of $207 million from NASA, has hardware and personnel in place at Michoud ready to continue assembly of the K-1 cargo


satellite launcher. The K-1’s partially

built mid

section is already on the assembly floor and slated for completion in September.

Michoud has been operated for NASA by Lockheed Martin Space Systems since the early 1980s. But that too is about to change. When Lockheed’s Michoud contract runs out in 2008, NASA wants to put a new contractor in charge of the Michoud

– one that is not also using the facilities there to plan or

build hardware for the space agency.

Lockheed Martin’s presence at Michoud dates back over three decades to 1973 when the company’s corporate predecessor, Martin Marietta, moved in alongside the Saturn program to begin designing the space shuttle external tank.

The first flight tank – a white-painted heavyweight, tipping the scales at 35,000 kilograms completely dry – rolled out in 1979. By 1983, Lockheed Martin was under contract to operate Michoud and build a slimmed-down external tank

weighing 30,000 kilograms. A switch to

aluminum-lithium alloy for a large part of the tank structure allowed NASA and Lockheed Martin to shed another 3,400 kilograms from the design, a necessary reduction to enable flights to the international space station. The first of those super lightweight tanks made its debut in 1998 on the final shuttle flight to the Russian space station Mir and has been used on every shuttle mission since except for the 1999 Shuttle Radar Topography Mission and Columbia’s fatal February 2003 flight. Neither of those flights were bound for the space station.

Emmanuel Zulueta, Lockheed Martin Space Systems vice president and the Michoud Operations site executive, said about 120 external tanks have been built at Michoud since the first flight article left for Kennedy Space Center in 1979. Fifteen more tanks will be built before the shuttle flies its last scheduled mission in late 2010. All 15 remaining tanks, Zulueta said, are now in some stage of

assembly. “The last tank to be built for the program is on the factory floor,” he said.

While Lockheed Martin must relinquish its long-standing caretaker role at Michoud late next

year, the company expects to maintain a significant presence at the sprawling assembly facility through the end of the decade and beyond.

Zulueta said a large percentage of the company’s 2,600 Michoud employees would be needed through 2010 to complete the shuttle program’s remaining external tanks, help Rocketplane Kistler build the K-1, and get started on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Lockheed Martin, which was awarded the

Orion prime contract

last August, plans to build a significant amount of the vehicle at Michoud. Zulueta said the Orion crew capsule and service module structures will roll out of Michoud starting early in the next decade, ready for final assembly at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Thanks to a NASA decree, whichever industry team the agency selects in August to build the Ares 1


upper stage, that work

also will be performed at Michoud, as will assembly and integration of the Ares 1 avionics ring under the so-called instrument unit contract currently out for bid. Lockheed Martin is on teams competing for both contracts.

Looking further into the future, NASA intends to take advantage of Michoud’s large enclosed manufacturing space to produce key components of the proposed Ares 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle, including the rocket’s cryogenic

main stage and the cryogenic Earth Departure Stage that would be used to propel Orion and a lunar lander to the Moon starting around 2020.

Sheila Cloud, the Michoud transition director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., said given the probability that a mix of contractors will win the Ares business still up for grabs, NASA thought it best to have an independent contractor in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the facility. She said the contracting switch NASA plans to make next year will return Michoud to a model of operations the facility last saw when the United States set its sights on the Moon for the first time.

“The transition is really preparation to take the facility back to an Apollo-like management model whereby there was a mission-independent operator who operated the facility for a number of aerospace contractors’ utilization of it,” Cloud said.

NASA made a strategic decision around 2005, Cloud said, to take advantage of Michoud’s skilled work force, deep-water access


more than 200,000 square meters of manufacturing space to build some of the largest elements of the nation’s next human space transportation system.

But some of the same attributes that make Michoud a good place to build large assemblies also makes the 335-hectare facility vulnerable to the elements, as NASA and Lockheed Martin learned when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and broad swaths of the rest of the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005.

NASA estimates that Katrina did $100 million worth of damage

to the Michoud Assembly Facility. But it could have been much worse. Thirty-nine workers, all but two of whom

were Lockheed-badged employees, stayed through the hurricane and well beyond. The ride-out crew, according to to Lockheed Michoud spokesman Marion LaNasa, pumped out well over 3 billion liters of water over the span of a couple days, keeping the facility fairly dry until the winds died down to a low-gale force and they were ab

le to start recovery efforts.

Within five weeks of the hurricane, even though nearly half of the Michoud work force had lost their homes, the facility was back up and running, working on external tanks to support the next shuttle missions.

Michoud’s commitment in the face of adversity won Lockheed Martin and its work force high praise. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, in a personal e-mail he sent to Lockheed Martin

Chief Executive Robert Stevens seven days after Katrina dissipated, credited the ride-out crew with saving Michoud.

“With it, they saved the Shuttle program and the future of Exploration, for we cannot go to the Moon without a rocket using that same key Shuttle building-block, the [External Tank],” Griffin wrote. “And we cannot produce the

[External Tank] anywhere else in the world.”