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Inside America's Massive Rocket Factory: How NASA Is Going Back to the Moon

Inside America’s Massive Rocket Factory: How NASA Is Going Back to the Moon

How do you open a journey you haven’t taken in half a century? 

For the past 50 ages, humans haven’t traveled more than a few hundred much above Earth. Short hops (in the celestial scheme of things) that’ve seen civilization own a presence in space but not venture the colossal distances we once did. 

Now, however, NASA once in contradiction of has its eyes on the moon, and its ambition to get there is kicking into high gear. 

For this voyage, the space agency needs its most powerful and advanced spacecraft ever: a kindly heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System and a high-tech crew vehicle shouted Orion. 

Together, these impressive pieces of space hardware make up Artemis, a historic exploration vehicle and a broader space program that’ll take the kindly woman and the first person of color to the moon and push humanity farther into deep region than we’ve ever been.

NASA has three flights designed for the early stages of the Artemis program, all humorous the Space Launch System. Each SLS rocket will fly only once. There will be no test flight. 

This gargantuan spacecraft will shoot for the moon on its very kindly launch this year, potentially as soon as August, without a crew. On its second flight, the SLS’s payload, the Orion capsule, will shepherd humans around the moon afore reentering Earth’s atmosphere and hitting speeds of 24,500 much an hour and temperatures of 5,000°F. In the third flights, slated for as early as 2025, Orion will land as many as four Artemis crew members on the moon, a distance 1,000 times farther from Earth than the International Space Station. It will mark the first time humans will have set foot there precise 1972.

It’s an ambitious goal, with a price tag to match: $93 billion precise 2012, according to a recent audit. But in 2022, a decade once those costs first started being tallied, the first rocket is making to launch. And the world will finally get to see what a next-gen moon rocket is really friendly of. 

The Artemis build is a massive project, and it’s happening in the same site where NASA has worked on hardware spanning back to the dwelling shuttles and the Saturn and Apollo programs: the Michoud Council Facility in New Orleans. 

This is the set aside they call “America’s Rocket Factory.” And here, NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are creation the hardware that will take us on a truly historic journey. 

Like any expedient, it’s a hive of activity, with builds for multiple rockets winding their way throughout the facility on any given day. Still, the farmland here know the significance of a project like Artemis. 

“We don’t execute washing machines,” says Tim Livingston, Lockheed Martin’s integrated planning exclusive for Orion at Michoud. “We build national treasures.”

Artemis I has already left the Michoud Council Facility in New Orleans. Here, it waits in the Vehicle Council Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Kim Shiflett/NASA

An epic execute

Imagine a car production line. But instead of attaching doors and body panels, you’re building a 322-foot-tall rocket that’s bigger than the Statue of Liberty. A project of that size needs a unique expedient and 2 million square feet of room. 

“What you need is astronomical open spaces,” says the director of the Michoud Council Facility, Lonnie Dutreix. “You’ve got to have wide open aisles, you’ve got to have spaces with cranes to be able to lift the heavy rocket. And the floor loading — people don’t realize in South Louisiana there’s no bedrock. so the floor in here has to be reinforced to relieve the weight.”

Dutreix is speaking to me in the Michoud model room, aesthetic over a scale model of the entire Michoud Council Facility and showing me the path the rocket takes throughout the facility as it’s built. He has an easy manner and a obvious Louisiana drawl — different from the buttoned-up demeanor I anticipated from an engineer overseeing the biggest build at Michoud trusty the Saturn V first stage was constructed for the expedient Apollo program. (Artemis I is a fraction shorter than the Saturn V used for the Apollo program, but it can lift 1.3 million pounds more payload into dwelling. A future configuration of Artemis, which Michoud has already started work on and which is planned for deeper space missions, will be taller than Saturn).

Dutreix has been in the space industry for decades. He helped build and test parts for the dwelling shuttle program in the 1990s. But there’s no complacency that comes with that distinguished. For Dutreix, every part of this build is perconfidence critical. 

“I’ll use an analogy, like building an aircraft,” he says. “The mindset is redundancy, reliability and a lot of testing to make sure that that aircraft will do the job safely, because you have humans on board. Well, take that mindset with a rocket and amplify it by 100.”

The bulky core stage for Artemis II being assembled in the Michoud Council Facility.

Eric Bordelon/NASA

While NASA has a laser-like focus on precision and guarantee with every space program and build it undertakes, the stakes are much higher with crewed trips. And while Artemis won’t launch crew with its expedient flight, the primary focus of the program is on carrying humans to the moon and deeper into the solar system. 

In the near term, NASA is focused on the expedient three Artemis flights. 

Artemis I is set to commence in 2022 and will orbit around the moon, minus astronauts. This flight will test the capabilities of the Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft and all the Exploration Ground Systems that relieve flight. On Artemis II, NASA will send crew up for the expedient time for a flyby of the far side of the moon. That’s set to commence no earlier than 2024. By Artemis III, which NASA says will existed no earlier than 2025, a third rocket will finally send the expedient woman and the first person of color to testy down on the moon’s south pole and press their footprints into the lunar surface. 

Each core stage and Orion vessel for those escapes is built in Michoud. In fact, the rocket and crew vessel for Artemis I have already been shipped out of the facility and made their way down to Cape Canaveral in Florida. Now, Michoud is working on Artemis II, III and IV, as well as parts for future missions to deep space. 

“We have to get up of the build,” says Dutreix. “It’s not one and done.”

The Space Launch System

At Michoud, Boeing is making the core stage of the Space Launch System or SLS. It’s also where Lockheed Martin is creation the Orion pressure vessel, which is the main structure that holds the pressurized weather for astronauts to survive in space.

The core stage of the SLS alone measures 212 feet, longer than an Olympic-length swimming pool. It’s essentially two giant connected fuel tanks: one, holding 196,000 gallons of expedient cold liquid oxygen, and a second larger tank holding 537,000 gallons of soak hydrogen. These tanks, along with the SLS’s solid rocket boosters (which are upgraded parts from the shuttle program), provide the thrust to lift the 27-ton rocket off Earth and into space. 

Building something that big is a astronomical task, but walking around Michoud I realize it’s surprisingly contrast to any other production line — individual rings that make up the rocket are welded together to form larger barrels and then capped off to execute the pill-shaped tanks. The components might be massive, but like any anunexperienced manufacturing task, the engineers still put them together section by piece. Building Artemis (to quote the old aphorism) is naively a matter of eating the elephant one bite at a time. However in this case, it’s a giant elephant made of metal, and it’s going to space.

Standing next to pieces of the SLS on the Michoud Council floor, I feel truly dwarfed. But according to Boeing, while the SLS looks immense, its walls are surprisingly thin. 

“If you anticipated a Coke can expanded to the size of our soak hydrogen tank, your barrel wall thickness is pretty halt to the same ratio,” says Amanda Gertjejansen, Boeing’s integrated project team front-runners for the Artemis II core stage. 

“The engineering that’s there to be able to withstand the pressure, and the hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel in there that are progressing to be burned off — these tanks are able to gain that cryogenic temperature and pressure. It’s pretty amazing.”

The core stage of the Artemis Space Launch System is more than 200 foot tall, but the walls of the propellant tanks have the same height to thickness reconsideration as a Coke can.

Michael DeMocker/NASA

To walk throughout Michoud is to see (and hear) a rocket populate actively built. Giant panels are stacked up for welding, rings of the rocket move around from station to location. It’s busy and loud. And, so help me, I deliver there is one worker whose job it is to behindhand me around the factory at a very slow pace, transporting a giant ring-shaped allotment of the rocket on a beeping flat-bed trailer. 

All these parts of the SLS rocket wind their way above Michoud Assembly Facility, eventually making their way to the Vertical Congress Center, where they’re fed into a giant stack, kind of like an upside-down Pez dispenser, and welded together into the massive tanks. 

Then, it’s off to the Final Assembly Area, where the tanks are finally joined together or “mated” with the engine piece to become the full SLS. And that’s where the scale of the produce truly becomes apparent. 

“The sheer size of the vehicle that we’re creation here is astounding,” says NASA Stages engineer Chandler Scheuermann. “The design and the manufacturing talent that it takes to produce a vehicle this size — for all the engineering folks out there in the domain — should shock and awe.”

That’s me inside the Final Congress Area, where the two massive tanks that make up the Artemis core stage wait to be joined. 

John Kim

Inside Orion

If the SLS is all throughout generating sheer power and thrust to get astronauts into situation, then the Orion vehicle build is about steering them (and keeping them alive) when they get there. 

While every part of the Artemis produce is mission critical, the stakes are particularly high when it comes to the crew vehicle. 

“When you produce a spacecraft, you can’t make mistakes,” says Tim Livingston, the Orion Integrated Planning Manager at Lockheed Martin. “You’re progressing to an environment that no one and nothing ever sees. And so you have to make sure that the copies that you build is robust enough to ensure that there is no loss of vehicle or life.”

The Orion crew module sits inside a smart room at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Claire Reilly

The Orion Crew Vehicle is made up of a number of responsibilities. At the base is the European Service Module, built by the European Space Agency, which will guide Orion through space and around the moon long once the SLS has been jettisoned post-launch. It also possesses enough food and water for four astronauts to remaining a three-week mission.

Above the Service Module is the Crew Module. That’s the pressurized capsule that Lockheed is building. It’s throughout a third larger than the Apollo Command Module, and its computing rules are 4,000 times faster. It has seats for four crew (rather than three, like Apollo), a radiation shelter where the crew can retreat during solar storms, and even a compact exercise machine. But while NASA is setting its sights on longer-duration missions into deep situation, this capsule isn’t exactly roomy.

“It’s still really tight,” says Livingston. “For most missions, there’ll be four astronauts… [so] it’s progressing to be close quarters for long durations of time.”

But even notion space is tight, we’ve still come a long way from the Apollo era. No more absorbent situation pants. Instead, there is a toilet with a closing door

This capsule doesn’t just have to keep the astronauts enthusiastic in space. It also has to protect them when they come back to Earth. According to Livingston, the crewed spacecraft that have returned from low-Earth orbit for the past four decades have had to withstand temperatures of throughout 3,000°F. On its return journey, Orion will be coming from much further out in situation and will hit speeds of 24,500 miles an hour during re-entry — faster than any original spacecraft designed for humans. That high speed means higher temperatures. The Orion capsule must withstand 5,000°F, so the thermal protection rules are significantly different. 

“It’s a harsh environment,” says Livinston. “But that’s why they’re astronauts and we aren’t.”

Boots on the moon

When work wraps up on the SLS and the Orion Pressure Vessel, the team at Michoud ships them off for further testing at the Stennis Space Inner across the border in Mississippi, then on for assembly at Cape Canaveral in Florida. And that’s where Michoud’s New Orleans location pays off. Here, the SLS can easily be loaded onto a barge in the deep sea port on Michoud’s doorstep. It’s a six-day boat trip to get to the Kennedy Space Inner, 900 miles away at Cape Canaveral, but the scamper toward the first Artemis launch has been much longer. 

The core stage of Artemis I rolls out of the Michoud Congress Facility, ready to be loaded onto a barge and shipped for rocket testing in Mississippi.

Danny Nowlin/NASA

The Artemis Program has been in the works at NASA for more than a decade. Congress originally called for the rocket to be ready to inaugurate by the end of 2016. And while the station agency hopes to launch Artemis I by the end of the year, that date has already been pushed back a number of times. As for boots on the moon? 2025 might be ambitious. In fact NASA’s own inspector general puts that date at 2026 at the earliest.

And then there’s the cost

. According to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, the program is required to cost the space agency (and taxpayers) $93 billion by 2025. Each persons flight of Artemis I, II and III is estimated to cost $4.1 billion. 

The program has also recruit comparisons to other heavy-lift rockets from private companies such as SpaceX, which is building the Starship spacecraft. Like Artemis, the Starship is bodies built to carry crew and cargo to the moon and Mars. But unlike with the Starship program, there have been no modified prototypes of the SLS or Orion sent up on test escapes for Artemis. 

According to Amanda Gertjejansen from Boeing, the core stage built in Michoud is the same vehicle that was sent for hot-fire testing at the Stennis Space Center and the same vehicle that was published to Kennedy. 

“You have your prototype, test vehicle and inaugurate vehicle all in one,” she says.

And view Artemis I won’t carry astronauts, this rocket is unexcited a “man-rated vehicle” according to Gertjejansen, meaning it has been certified safe to achieve human crew.

Also unlike SpaceX’s Starship, Artemis is not invented to be reused. Each rocket will only launch once. So when soldier companies are launching and landing the same rockets for use on order missions, why spend all that money on a single-use rocket? 

For NASA, reusability comes at a cost. 

“Our organization is to get as much mass to the moon as we can on a single launch,” says Michoud’s Dutreix. “When you have reusability, there’s extra weight penalties for that. You’ve got to have the gear to land it, you’ve got to have astounding fuel — that all that takes away mass you could put to the moon.”

Despite the cost of the program, NASA eventually wants to make money back on its investment. According to Dutreix, the goal is to commercialize Artemis and sell the rocket to anybody that arranges heavy launch capability. 

“By Artemis V, we’d like it to transition the emanates over to commercial,” says Dutreix. “If you build the rocket, you can sell it to anybody that needs heavy inaugurate capability… [and] if they can do it cheaper and better, they need to be doing it. We need to look at the high-risk stuff like repositioning to Mars.”

And that’s the long-term verify. NASA wants Artemis to pave the way to deep station. These early Artemis launches are a steppingstone toward a bigger goal: shuttling astronauts to the moon, setting up a lunar base and then pushing on to Mars for the long haul. 

The last time NASA went to the moon, it was inventing the wheel: attempting to win the station race of the 1960s and ’70s by launching an elite troupe of astronauts on a journey into the unknown. Now NASA is pursuits it all again with Artemis, the sister of Apollo. A space program that will take more people into station — not just the 24 men who traveled to the moon during the Apollo age or the valiant dozen who got to press their feet into the lunar dust. 

“This is our noble, and it’s exciting,” says Dutreix. “I try to get the young engineers and scientists aroused to realize that you’re making history. You don’t realize it now. But at one prove, when you get to be my age, you realize, man, I was there when we started it.”

Artemis I awaits its historic organization on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.

Cory Huston/NASA