NASA picks Boeing for new rockets; Final assembly will be at Michoud

The Boeing Co. was chosen Tuesday to build rockets that will send astronauts to the moon and beyond, launching the country's next generation of space exploration.

Final assembly of the Ares I upper stage rocket, which will be used to launch a new spacecraft called the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, will take place at the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans. The contract to build the rockets was awarded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The decision to hire Boeing brings a new major company to the city as it struggles to rebuild its economy and infrastructure two years after Hurricane Katrina. The contract has the potential to preserve several hundred aerospace jobs in the area currently tied to the space shuttle program, which will eventually be phased out. In addition, the contract is expected to bring new life to the Michoud plant, which has been part of the space program since 1961, and begin its transformation into a facility that works on multiple projects for the space agency simultaneously rather than assembling just one spacecraft component.

The contract, which will pay Boeing the cost of production plus an award fee, is valued at $514.7 million through the end of the production period on Dec. 31, 2016.

Boeing beat the only other competitor for the job, a partnership of Alliant Techsystems Inc., Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Lockheed Martin already works for NASA, building the massive external fuel tanks for the space shuttle program. For decades, producing those tanks has been the sole task of the Michoud Assembly Facility. But with the shuttle program scheduled to wind down by 2010, NASA has sought to shift additional work to Michoud to maintain the employment force of about 2,000 workers.

NASA plans to transition out of the shuttle program and into the new Constellation program, of which Orion is a part, with a goal of returning astronauts to the moon and, ultimately, to Mars.

At the outset, NASA assigned Michoud a significant role in building the next-generation space vehicle. The space agency said last year that regardless of which company was selected to design Orion's rockets, final assembly of the component would be done at Michoud. Chief among the sprawling eastern New Orleans plant's assets, according to NASA, was its ability to build large rockets, deepwater access and proximity to the Stennis Space Center near Slidell, which does rocket propulsion testing for the rockets to be used in the Constellation program. This summer, Stennis began work on a new test stand for the J-2X rocket engine that will power the Ares I rocket. The stand will allow engineers to test the engine by simulating conditions at different altitudes.

The Michoud plant survived flooding following Katrina thanks to a group of dedicated employees who remained at the plant. Soon after the storm, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin flew in by helicopter to reassure workers that the agency would not abandon Michoud and would stand by its commitment to bring production work there for many years to come.

Maintaining that workforce is viewed as a major economic support on the city's eastern edge, which was heavily damaged in the flooding.

With NASA's decision to bring new work to Michoud, New Orleans couldn't lose regardless of which company was chosen to build the Ares I rocket, according to one longtime space historian.

Despite the city's post-storm obstacles, the work and workers will be there, said Bob Zimmerman, author of an encyclopedia of space exploration.

"The people will get jobs, and they will use that money to get a house built," he said. "That's going to happen. They will build their homes, build their schools. They will find a way to make that happen. With engineers earning $50,000 to $100,000 a year, they are going to have the capital to start investing in their homes and infrastructure. They're going to be taxpayers."

Orion will be used to carry four astronauts to the moon and six explorers to Mars, as well as deliver crew and supplies to the International Space Station. The module that will carry the astronauts will be shaped like the former Apollo capsule spacecraft, only larger and able to move at a rate 10 times faster than the space shuttle.

The Ares I upper stage rocket that will help propel Orion will be a single solid rocket booster and motor similar to those used on the space shuttle. The shuttle, however, uses a pair of four-segment solid rocket boosters; the new rocket will include a fifth motor segment. The Ares I will provide the navigation, guidance, control and propulsion required for the second stage of the rocket's ascent.

The Ares I upper stage development is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"We expect in the area, the Louisiana and Mississippi area, employment will likely peak out around 250 or so," said Danny Davis, Upper Stage Element manager for NASA.

That workforce will begin working in late 2008, he said.

In the interim, NASA will have to prepare the site for the production facility before the actual work can begin. Once a site is selected from the 800-plus acres at Michoud, actual excavation work for construction would likely occur in late 2008 to early 2009, Davis said.

It's too early to say what the employment numbers at Michoud will be until final details are worked out in consultation with NASA, said Jim Chilton, Boeing's vice president of Exploration Launch Systems, based in Huntsville, Ala. He will serve as program manager for Ares I upper stage production work.

Chilton said the company anticipates having its suppliers deliver parts to Michoud and having the assembly work done there for delivery to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Boeing already has subcontractors lined up in the Huntsville area, where the company has significant operations at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Boeing is continuing to search for subcontractors in the Louisiana and Mississippi area that would serve the Stennis and Michoud facilities on the Ares I project. Late last year, the company set up an office in New Orleans as it prepared to bid on the Ares I rocket.

Then, in November, a Boeing team held open events inviting small local suppliers to learn what Boeing's needs for the project would be and how they could participate, Chilton said.

"We began vetting some local suppliers and had some good luck with that," he said. "We have some strong candidates."

As Boeing begins to work with NASA on detailed production requirements, Boeing will set up a team at Michoud and allow suppliers to compete for roles at the facility.

In addition to having the rocket built there, Michoud has been designated as the site for several other production jobs. The Orion crew exploration vehicle will be assembled at Michoud under Lockheed Martin's direction.

The Michoud facility has picked up another construction job, separate from the Constellation program. NASA chose two companies for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project, an effort to get private companies to build vehicles to deliver crew and cargo to the space station. One of those contractors, Rocketplane Kistler, will integrate and assemble its commercial vehicle at Michoud.