The Mission to Moon & Mars Begins at Michoud
It’s Monday April 4—the day after what was supposed to be the big day—and Lonnie Dutreix, the director of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East, exudes a natural sense of excitement and energy as he talks about the possibilities that lie ahead.
After the initial attempt at a “Wet Dress Rehearsal” of NASA’s Artemis I Space Launch System (SLS) rocket was delayed a day, Dutreix and his vast team of engineers couldn’t help but to eagerly anticipate watching this first step, which has been years in the making.
“You spend a long time on something, you put a lot of work into it, and you wake up this morning and you begin to see all that pay off,” Dutreix says. “Very exciting. The launch is the beginning. It’s like sending your kid to preschool for the first time, but what you’re really focused on and waiting for is them graduating from college.”
An 800-acre complex situated near the Orleans Parish/St. Bernard Parish line, Michoud and NASA’s relationship dates back 60 years, the latest chapter being Michoud’s role in manufacturing components to be used in the multi-phase Artemis Program—a decades-long mission that will establish a presence on the moon, return astronauts to the lunar surface and eventually travel to Mars. The most noteworthy task handled by Michoud is the construction of the world’s most powerful rocket that will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon when Artemis II launches in Spring 2024.
Creating and assembling the 212-foot SLS Core Stage—the backbone of the rocket in layman’s terms—and designing it so it’s capable of handling not only Artemis’ massive payload, but also the force generated by four RS-25 engines and a series of rocket boosters, presented workers at Michoud with a unique challenge. So how did they answer that challenge? Through a variety of old trusted methods that date all the way back to the Apollo missions coupled with modern innovations—such as cleaner, more efficient friction stir welding—and state-of-the-art robotics.
For example, Dutreix explains that much of the testing and analysis on different aspects of the SLS Core Stages could now be done through various software applications and simulations instead of actual physical (and often destructive) trials.
“The job is still the job, but it’s changed from someone with a welder in their hand creating sparks, to now someone has to go fix the robot,” Dutreix says. “So there was a lot of, ‘Let’s take advantage of what already exists,’ but also, ‘What new tooling and techniques can we use to build a rocket in today’s environment?’
“As I tell our engineers, the laws of physics haven’t changed since the days of Isaac Newton, but the techniques and technology to do what you do certainly have.”
The challenge from this point forward (now that the blueprint has been cemented with the Artemis I and Artemis II SLS core stages), Dutreix says, will be to construct future iterations of Artemis rockets more efficiently and in a more cost-effective manner.
“As you might guess, with any first-time build, we learned a lot of lessons,” Dutreix says. “And you take those lessons and refine and better your processes so that you can get faster in future builds. You’re looking for repeatability—to do what you’ve already done again at the same high standard—but you’re also looking to make things easier and improve efficiency. You keep turning a corner—the first one is built, the second one is almost done, now we’re examining the routine—manufacturing techniques, parts supply, fabrication—and how to make it better.”
Michoud’s multiple contributions to NASA’s Artemis missions marked a revival for the facility after its long-term relevance was in serious doubt roughly a decade earlier. Near the end of his first term, then-President George W. Bush announced that NASA’s Space Shuttle Program would conclude in 2010, thus ending a 37-year alliance with Michoud. A series of layoffs followed, and for the first time since it forged a role in manufacturing components for space exploration, Michoud’s workforce dipped well below 1,000 employees.
Michoud’s fortunes turned 180 degrees 18 months later, when NASA decided the South Louisiana assembly facility would construct the components of its new “heavy-lift” rocket (which eventually became the Artemis missions in 2017) right here in South Louisiana.
“When Shuttle Program ended, it was the end of an era,” Dutreix says. “And what came next was unknown, specifically when it came to the future of Michoud. Just a lot of uncertainty. So the Artemis Program has infused a lot of life into this place and reintroduced Michoud’s role back into the hearts and minds of the people of this area.
“You used to go to dinner in New Orleans and wear a NASA pin, and the waiter would think you’re from out of town. But with Artemis and the great job our team has done with outreach, it’s gotten people in the community excited. It’s not Michoud’s rocket. It’s not NASA’s rocket. It’s our rocket. It’s the nation’s rocket, and we’re building it right here.”