Building Rockets in the South

Building Rockets in the South

The locals and NASA folk call it MAF. To the general public it’s the Michoud Assembly Facility, the place where really large rocket parts are manufactured. Located in East New Orleans, MAF has a rich history of successful rocket building for America’s space programs.

The first time I visited was 2006, about six months after Katrina hit. I was down to manage the logistics for a NASA Industry day, an event to showcase opportunities to local/regional business for the new Constellation Program’s Ares One vehicle project. The upper stage was slated to be built at MAF. I’ll never forget the immenseness of the main building, where all the metal gets fabricated and assembled. They had placed a shuttle external tank (ET) in the middle of one of the main aisles of the building for this particular event and it was huge comparative to all the pictures I had seen.

In 2011 I had another opportunity to come support an Industry Day for the Space Launch System (SLS) Program. The Shuttle’s External Tank contract had just ended, the Constellation Program was canceled, and the place was desolate. All the big tools were wrapped in blue shrink wrap, major areas of the main floor were dark to save money on electricity, and there were not many people around. The once bustling cafeteria was closed, the numerous bicycles previously used by the skilled labor to get around the immense 43 acre building were leaning against walls and in bike racks throughout the facility. Sad, lonely, a bit scary.

MAF has a rich history which dates back close to 200 years. Antoine Michoud, a son of one of Napoleon’s staff bought the property and moved to New Orleans in 1827 to set up a sugar plantation on the tract of land where MAF now sits. The plantation was never truly successful. The only remnants left are two brick smoke stacks from the original refinery.

Flash forward to 1942 when the New Orleans Higgins Industries won a contract to build 200 Liberty Ships. The land was dredged and drained and the facility was set to be built. As the facility was nearly half completed the contract was canceled due to a shortage of steel. Higgins later received a letter of intent to purchase wooden cargo planes from the Army Air Corps, but that contract, was also canceled after only two planes were produced.

In 1945 the plant was closed and turned over to the War Assets Administration which entered into an agreement with the New Orleans Dock Board to rent the facility for 15 years with the intent for the Dock Board to acquire the property at the end of the period. The facilities were never fully utilized until the Korean conflict when the U.S. government once again took over the facility under the management of the Army Ordnance Corps and issued a contract to the Chrysler Corporation to make tank engines.

After the end of the Korean conflict the facilities once again lay dormant, and decay set in until 1961 when NASA chose the location to manufacture the first stages of the Saturn I-B and massive Saturn V rocket which was instrumental in getting men to the moon. This production line continued through 1970 when the Apollo program was canceled by President Nixon. A test article of the massive first stage Saturn V still remains outside near the main entrance as a reminder of past legacy.

With the go ahead of the Space Shuttle program in the early 70s, the Martin Marietta Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) was awarded the contract to build the shuttle’s external tank. One of the stipulations of the contract was for it to be built at MAF. So, the entire manifest of external tanks for the shuttle program was built at MAF. The last remaining external tank is sitting outside of the massive manufacturing building to this day.

I am happy to report, as of this posting, the place is bustling once again with people. The last three times I have visited I witnessed the manufacturing of flight hardware for the first SLS flight, scheduled in a few years. One of the high bay cells contains the world’s largest vertical welding and assembly tool which will assemble the immense core stage of the SLS rocket. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.

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