The Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) has begun its transformation back into the birth place of giant rockets that will enable the United States to return to deep space exploration. Modification work for the Space Launch System (SLS) is taking place across huge areas of the New Orleans facility, which will soon host the world’s largest friction stir weld machine.
Michoud has played a vital role in building rocket hardware for many decades, best known to the current generation for its assembly of the large External Tanks that flew with the Space Shuttle.
Its history ranges as far back as the 1940s, building planes and landing craft during World War II, before switching its focus to building engines for Sherman and Patton tanks for use during the Korean War.
MAF entered the rocket business in 1961, when NASA tasked the facility with the construction of first stages for the Saturn IB and Saturn V launch vehicles, prior to their shipment by barge to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Undergoing a similar transition to what it is today, Michoud had its attention switched to the construction and assembly of the Shuttle External Tanks.
The first of the 136 tanks, ET-1 for STS-1, rolled out of the door in June, 1979 – one of only two tanks to have its thermal protection system foam covered in white paint.
The latter period of its ET production role was filled with both tragedy and success, as STS-107’s External Tank became the focus of investigations into the loss of Columbia, after it shed a large piece of foam from its bipod ramp, critically damaging the ill-fated flagship.
The painful Return To Flight efforts resulted in major modifications to the External Tank, placing new demands on Michoud’s workforce, only for the region to be decimated by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
With large numbers of the MAF workforce displaced – some with their homes completely destroyed – the downstream ET manifest was under severe strain, just as NASA were hoping to pick up the pace on ISS assembly missions to complete the Shuttle’s final major role in space.
Under the leadership of key managers, such as the highly respected Wanda Sigur, the workforce rallied, adding shifts and working Technical Interchange Meetings (TIMs) to streamline the production practises, all while improving the safety of the tanks.
Their work proved to be successful, as confirmed by the “clean” performance of the ETs during the vast majority of RTF launches.
The MAF workforce managed to keep the ET schedule on track – aided by some misbehaving orbiters extending processing flows at KSC – and even returned one tank back into the mix. ET-122 was set to fly earlier in the program, before being damaged by Katrina. It successfully flew on STS-134 with Endeavour.
However, by the time the Shuttle Program was slowing down, the workforce already knew the promise of transitioning their careers into the Constellation Program (CxP) were dashed. As as result of CxP’s eventual cancellation, the vast majority of the MAF workforce were laid off as the final External Tank headed out into the Gulf of Mexico.
A large number of workers could have seen their careers saved, had it not been for the delays in implementing the plan for a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV), outlined in the 2010 Authorization Act as the flagship of a realigned exploration program.
MAF leaders had hoped for an announcement within a timescale that may have allowed them to save a large number of workers, as was seen in their actions to extend the period prior to handing out WARN notices, several times, before finally losing patience with the politically motivated stalling tactics in Washington DC.
The impact to the facility was severe, as only a small group of skilled workers remained, spending their days removing equipment to make way for a line of Hollywood production companies to use the wide open floor space to film scenes for movies, such as GI Joe 2 (Retaliation).
Signs of Michoud returning to life were small, with the BP oil company taking control of Building 451 – otherwise known as the LH2 proof test building – to store the blow out preventer that caused the Gulf oil spill in 2010, while Boeing utilized the MAF machinery to build a small pathfinder tank.
The last remaining ET – an old and usable LWT named ET-94 – was moved into storage in Building 103, while several part tanks – such as ET-139, which provided a test bed for work surrounding the Stringer crack issue suffered by STS-133′s ET-137 near to the end of the program – were sold to scrap merchants.
Elsewhere in the facility, work began on Orion, resulting in the construction of the Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1) vehicle, which has since shipped to KSC for outfitting. All future Orions will be born at Michoud, with work on the Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) Orion scheduled to start as early as next year.
Orion will also gain a neighbor in the form of new Dream Chasers, following a deal between Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Lockheed Martin that included MAF in the role of building the composite airframe for new spacecraft that will be launched atop of an Atlas V.
However, the bulk of MAF’s future work will be on the huge SLS rocket, with large-scale efforts now taking place to modify several buildings to host the fabrication and assembly of the HLV at the facility.
Multiple projects are scheduled through 2014, involving modification and construction projects in Buildings 103, 110, 114, 115, 131 and 451.
Under the watchful eye of ET-94 in Building 103, Michoud’s main manufacturing building – encompassing 42 acres under its roof – is being modified to welcome the Robotic Weld Tool 3. Scheduled for completion by May, the tool will be used to make dome components for SLS, and will be known as the Enhanced Robotic Weld Tool when in operation.
This large factory floor space will also host the segmented ring tool, dedicated to fabricating L and Y rings for the SLS vehicle. These rings are used to make barrel-to-barrel and dome-to-barrel connections within the SLS rocket’s structure.
The tooling installation work – which has already seen circular steel structures rise out of the floor – should be completed this month, with test and checkout procedures to follow immediately.
Repurposing the facility since the demise of the Constellation Program can be seen in Building 115, as engineers modify the high-bay manufacturing building by installing weld tooling that will fabricate the barrel components for SLS. Known as the Vertical Weld Center, the friction-stir-weld tool will stand about three stories tall once fully assembled. The work is scheduled for completion in June.
Over in Building 110, the demolition work on Cells B and C – which once hosted fully constructed External Tanks for TPS foam application – has been completed.
Preparations are in now full swing for the installation of the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC), a location where dome assemblies and the tank barrel sections will be joined together to complete the “dry structure assemblies”.
This huge piece of hardware should be in place by March, 2014 – becoming the world’s largest friction stir weld machine.
In Building 131 – previously used for the cleaning and primer application for the Shuttle ETs – repurposing work is taking place enable it to host massive SLS sections for foam application.
Because SLS is so large, the roofline of the building is being extended north. Engineers are currently breaking up the tarmac in front of the building and adding to the existing foundation in preparation for the building work.
Notably, the SLS stages will depart from MAF without any white paint, despite NASA images showing a “Saturn V” type paint scheme for the monster rocket. As such, SLS will have an “orange” core, with the appearance of a large Shuttle External Tank.
Roofline and foundation extensions are also taking place in Building 451, similar to building 131, allowing for additional space for proof testing of the LH2 tank on SLS’ core stage. Space in the building is being created by removing what is known as the “beer can,” a barrel-shaped structure for holding the structure in place during testing.
While KSC continues its efforts to attract several vehicles to be part of its “multi-user spaceport” aspirations, MAF has already secured its place as a facility that will be birthplace of both commercial and government vehicles for the decades to come.
(Images: Via NASA and L2 content from L2′s ET and SLS specific L2 sections, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal – interactive with actual SLS engineers – updates on the SLS and HLV, available on no other site.)
(L2 is – as it has been for the past several years – providing full exclusive SLS and Exploration Planning coverage. To join L2, click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/)
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