MAF goes Hollywood as movie teams utilize the facility’s once-busy expanses

by Chris Bergin

In what is a sobering reality of the Space Shuttle Program’s end, the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) is now being filled with the sound of clapperboards, as opposed to the noise of space hardware being constructed. Numerous major movie studios are taking advantage of what are now large empty expanses inside the New Orleans facility.


Working under the motto of “Finish Strong”, the Michoud managers, engineers and technicians proved to be the unsung heroes of the final phase of the Space Shuttle Program (SSP).

Fighting back from the tragedy of Columbia’s loss, caused by a piece of hardware from one of their own External Tanks – as much as a series of events outside of their control contributed to the disaster – the MAF team and center became one of the focal points for the implementation of Return To Flight (RTF) modifications – L2 link.

Initially, this proved to be anything but smooth sailing, with the first tank to fly since Columbia’s launch liberating a large slice of its PAL (Protuberance Air Load) ramp during Discovery’s STS-114 ascent – resulting in further changes via the complex science of mitigating foam loss during the ride uphill.

Further finite modifications were made to the tank’s Thermal Protection System (TPS) as the fleet began to up the pace, itself a massive challenge, with each change to a highly refined system carefully studied and refined further.

One such example was the modifications made to the LH2 Ice Frost Ramps (IFRs), which were fine-tuned over a number of flights, based on their performance during actual launches. The LO2 IFRs were also monitored through to the end of the program.

These numerous changes, in tandem with an improving flight rate, resulted in additional challenges, such as achieving the delivery dates for the tanks based on the projected flight manifests created by the Flight Assignment Working Group (FAWG) – L2 Link.

Via the mix of ingenious management brainstorming at numerous Technical Interchange Meetings (TIMs), the dedication of the Michoud workforce working seven days a week and solid leadership from Lockheed Martin’s ET boss Wanda Sigur, refined delivery dates supported the desired manifest – as seen ahead of the flagship STS-125 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

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More importantly – not least in the case of Atlantis’ Hubble mission – the tanks started to enjoy a run of increasing success in the mitigation of foam liberation from the critical areas of the tank, resulting in mainly “clean” orbiters – no serious TPS damage caused by foam loss) – especially in the latter missions for the fleet.

Michoud even managed to add a tank to the manifest, namely ET-122, allowing for the addition of STS-135, a mission which has proved to be extremely vital for the International Space Station’s logistical health, especially during what has proven to be a problematic year for the Russians.

ET-122, damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when it was located in Cell-A of MAF’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), required a large amount of work, both from a repair standpoint, but also via the requirement to implement the numerous RTF modifications.

And Katrina didn’t just damage the tank, but also displaced large amounts of the MAF workforce, some of whom were technically homeless at the time NASA needed them the most during the comeback from negative delivery dates.

Sadly, most of that workforce fell foul of NASA’s ongoing transition, as much as most saw it coming since the decision was made to retire the Shuttle fleet once ISS assembly was complete – although the since-cancelled Constellation Program (CxP) was a hammer blow to the facility. Just a handful of ET engineers remained at MAF by the end of August, with the rest of what is now a small workforce working on Orion and other contracts.

The official end of ET work at MAF resulted in the spare tanks – such as ET-94 – no longer being serviced by Lockheed Martin. They have been turned over to the ownership of Jacobs Technologies.

A number of workers might of been saved, had NASA administrator Charlie Bolden announced the Space Launch System (SLS) when lawmakers had requested it. MAF leaders had hoped for an end to the delays earlier this year, extending the period prior to the handing of WARN notices to a number of workers several times, before finally losing patience.

Now the SLS program is up and running, MAF are hoping to be involved in the resulting contracts, with one of the main contractors likely to be building the core stage, Boeing, already noted to have utilized the facility for their SLS-related Pathfinder tank. Meanwhile, other major weld tooling has been placed into storage.

MAF At The Movies:

Ironically, some of the remaining workforce found themselves with job sheets that had nothing to do with the space program, as they spent some of their days removing equipment to make space for a string of production companies to use the facility to film parts of their blockbuster films, per L2 information.

The first of which was GI Joe 2 (Retaliation) – which has now completed filming inside MAF, ahead of its summer 2012 release date.

This movie stars Bruce Willis – who is no stranger to space hardware, following his staring role in the blockbuster movie Armageddon, which filmed at numerous NASA centers, including the Johnson Space Center (JSC) and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Universal Pictures will arrive in January to film two movies (the titles of which are being kept secret), while Disney and MGM are also in the process of negotiating the use of MAF’s 101 building for filming purposes.

Despite the major handover to Jacobs, Lockheed Martin still had control of final assembly position 3. However, current MAF employees have been told to clear out all equipment to make room for yet another studio. At this time all four final assembly positions, the entire VAB, and the 420 building at Michoud are now classed as movie sets.

It has also been noted that the BP oil company has also taken control of BLDG 451 – otherwise known as the LH2 proof test building – to store the blow out preventer that caused the Gulf oil spill in 2010.

It is hoped that sometime in 2012, MAF will see the work being carried out on the Orion which will fly on the Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) being joined by work on commercial vehicles and the SLS, as opposed to providing a large indoor facility to Hollywood.

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