NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden gained a close up and personal look at the ever-changing face of the famous Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) on Monday. The former birthplace of Saturn stages and Shuttle External Tanks is ramping up towards its new role, producing the giant core stages for the Space Launch System (SLS).
The New Orleans facility has a rich history, one that ranges back as far the 1940s, when it began life building planes and landing craft for American forces during World War II, before switching its focus to building engines for Sherman and Patton tanks for use during the Korean War.
Entering the rocket business in 1961, 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 MAF workforce fought though various challenges, not least the Return To Flight effort, after one of their tanks shed foam from its bipod ramp, critically injuring Columbia during her ill-fated STS-107 launch, before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the local area, personally impacting on almost all of the MAF employees.
Despite this, the workers managed to keep the ET schedule on track, even returning 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.
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.
However, the dawn of the new era is now starting to rise out of the ground at MAF, with work on various commercial projects, its role in giving birth to the Orion spacecraft and Lockheed Martin’s use of the facility in constructing the Dream Chaser fleet.
By far the largest project, the installation of giant machines to build the SLS cores is progressing to plan.
This latest transition was seen in person by General Bolden – along with Senator David Vitter of Louisiana – during a tour of the facility on Monday.
Modification and construction projects are taking place in Buildings 103, 110, 114, 115, 131 and 451 at the giant facility, but the tour focused on the Vertical Assembly Center (VAB), where the 27.5-foot diameter cylinders, domes, rings and other elements will be brought together to form the fuel tanks and core stage of SLS.
MAF’s Vertical Assembly Center will be home to one of the largest welding tools of its kind and is scheduled to be completed in March of this year.
“American astronauts are living and working in space aboard the International Space Station, preparing for deeper space exploration and the SLS is the rocket that will take them there,” noted the General during the tour.
“We’re making tremendous progress on SLS, and I salute the team at Michoud for making sure the United States continues to lead the world in exploration.”
General Bolden also got to view Building 103, where Michoud’s main manufacturing building – encompassing 42 acres under its roof – is welcoming the Robotic Weld Tool 3.
The Circumferential Dome Weld and Gore Weld tools will be used on the RWT-3 to make dome components for SLS. The machine will be known as the Enhanced Robotic Weld Tool when in operation.
Specifically, the Circumferential Dome Weld Tool will be used to perform circumferential friction stir welds in the production of dome assemblies for the SLS core stage cryogenic tanks, whereas the Gore Weld Tool will perform vertical conventional friction stir welds in the production of gore assemblies – preformed aluminum alloy dome segments – for the SLS core stage tanks.
Meanwhile, the new Vertical Weld Center is a friction-stir-weld tool for wet and dry structures on the SLS core stage. This tool will weld barrel panels together to produce whole barrels for the two pressurized tanks, the Intertank, the Forward Skirt and the Aft Engine Section. It stands about three stories tall and weighs 150 tons.
“The Space Launch System is becoming a reality thanks to the unique workforce and tools at Michoud and NASA facilities across the country,” added SLS Program Manager Todd May, who joined Bolden on the tour.
“We’re on schedule and looking forward to SLS’s first launch.”
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