Inside America’s Massive Rocket Factory: How NASA Is Going Back to the Moon
source: cnet.com | image: Ben Smegelsky/NASA
NASA is about to go on a journey it hasn’t taken in 50 years. To get there, it has built its most powerful rocket ever. I went behind the scenes to see what it takes to build a once-in-a-generation spacecraft.
How do you start a journey you haven’t taken in half a century?
For the past 50 years, humans haven’t traveled more than a few hundred miles above Earth. Short hops (in the celestial scheme of things) that’ve seen civilization maintain a presence in space but not venture the great distances we once did.
Now, however, NASA once again 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 super heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System and a high-tech crew vehicle called Orion.
Together, these impressive pieces of space hardware make up Artemis, a historic exploration vehicle and a broader space program that’ll take the first woman and the first person of color to the moon and push humanity farther into deep space than we’ve ever been.
NASA has three flights planned for the early stages of the Artemis program, all using the Space Launch System. Each SLS rocket will fly only once. There will be no test flight.
This immense spacecraft will shoot for the moon on its very first 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 before reentering Earth’s atmosphere and hitting speeds of 24,500 miles an hour and temperatures of 5,000°F. In the third flight, 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 since 1972.
It’s an ambitious goal, with a price tag to match: $93 billion since 2012, according to a recent audit. But in 2022, a decade after those costs first started being tallied, the first rocket is preparing to launch. And the world will finally get to see what a next-gen moon rocket is really capable 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 space shuttles and the Saturn and Apollo programs: the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
This is the place they call “America’s Rocket Factory.” And here, NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are building the hardware that will take us on a truly historic journey.
Like any factory, it’s a hive of activity, with builds for multiple rockets winding their way through the facility on any given day. Still, the people here know the significance of a project like Artemis.
“We don’t build washing machines,” says Tim Livingston, Lockheed Martin’s integrated planning manager for Orion at Michoud. “We build national treasures.”
An epic build
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 factory and 2 million square feet of room.
“What you need is large open spaces,” says the director of the Michoud Assembly 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 support the weight.”
Dutreix is speaking to me in the Michoud model room, looming over a scale model of the entire Michoud Assembly Facility and showing me the path the rocket takes through the facility as it’s built. He has an easy manner and a strong Louisiana drawl — different from the buttoned-up demeanor I expected from an engineer overseeing the biggest build at Michoud since the Saturn V first stage was constructed for the first 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 space. A future configuration of Artemis, which Michoud has already started work on and which is designed 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 space shuttle program in the 1990s. But there’s no complacency that comes with that experience. For Dutreix, every part of this build is mission 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.”
While NASA has a laser-like focus on precision and safety with every space program and build it undertakes, the stakes are much higher with crewed flight. And while Artemis won’t launch crew with its first 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 first three Artemis flights.
Artemis I is set to launch in 2022 and will orbit around the moon, without astronauts. This flight will test the capabilities of the Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft and all the Exploration Ground Systems that support flight. On Artemis II, NASA will send crew up for the first time for a flyby of the far side of the moon. That’s set to launch no earlier than 2024. By Artemis III, which NASA says will happen no earlier than 2025, a third rocket will finally send the first woman and the first person of color to touch down on the moon’s south pole and press their footprints into the lunar surface.
Each core stage and Orion vessel for those flights 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 ahead 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 building the Orion pressure vessel, which is the main structure that holds the pressurized atmosphere 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 super cold liquid oxygen, and a second larger tank holding 537,000 gallons of liquid 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 mammoth task, but walking around Michoud I realize it’s surprisingly similar to any other production line — individual rings that make up the rocket are welded together to form larger barrels and then capped off to create the pill-shaped tanks. The components might be massive, but like any other manufacturing task, the engineers still put them together piece by piece. Building Artemis (to quote the old aphorism) is simply a matter of eating the elephant one bite at a time. Except 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 Assembly floor, I feel truly dwarfed. But according to Boeing, while the SLS looks immense, its walls are surprisingly thin.
“If you imagine a Coke can expanded to the size of our liquid hydrogen tank, your barrel wall thickness is pretty close to the same ratio,” says Amanda Gertjejansen, Boeing’s integrated project team leader 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 going to be burned off — these tanks are able to maintain that cryogenic temperature and pressure. It’s pretty amazing.”
To walk around Michoud is to see (and hear) a rocket being actively built. Giant panels are stacked up for welding, rings of the rocket move around from station to station. It’s busy and loud. And, so help me, I swear there is one worker whose job it is to follow me around the factory at a very slow pace, transporting a giant ring-shaped piece of the rocket on a beeping flat-bed trailer.
All these parts of the SLS rocket wind their way through Michoud Assembly Facility, eventually making their way to the Vertical Assembly 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 section to become the full SLS. And that’s where the scale of the build truly becomes apparent.
“The sheer size of the vehicle that we’re building here is astounding,” says NASA Stages engineer Chandler Scheuermann. “The design and the manufacturing talent that it takes to build a vehicle this size — for all the engineering folks out there in the world — should shock and awe.”
If the SLS is all about generating sheer power and thrust to get astronauts into space, then the Orion vehicle build is about steering them (and keeping them alive) when they get there.
While every part of the Artemis build is mission critical, the stakes are particularly high when it comes to the crew vehicle.
“When you build a spacecraft, you can’t make mistakes,” says Tim Livingston, the Orion Integrated Planning Manager at Lockheed Martin. “You’re going to an environment that no one and nothing ever sees. And so you have to make sure that the product that you build is robust enough to ensure that there is no loss of vehicle or life.”
The Orion Crew Vehicle is made up of a number of sections. 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 after the SLS has been jettisoned post-launch. It also contains enough food and water for four astronauts to survive a three-week mission.
Above the Service Module is the Crew Module. That’s the pressurized capsule that Lockheed is building. It’s about a third larger than the Apollo Command Module, and its computing systems 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 space, this capsule isn’t exactly roomy.
“It’s still really tight,” says Livingston. “For most missions, there’ll be four astronauts… [so] it’s going to be close quarters for long durations of time.”
But even though space is tight, we’ve still come a long way from the Apollo era. No more absorbent space pants. Instead, there is a toilet with a closing door.
This capsule doesn’t just have to keep the astronauts alive 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 about 3,000°F. On its return journey, Orion will be coming from much further out in space and will hit speeds of 24,500 miles an hour during re-entry — faster than any current spacecraft designed for humans. That high speed means higher temperatures. The Orion capsule must withstand 5,000°F, so the thermal protection systems 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 Center 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 simply 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 Center, 900 miles away at Cape Canaveral, but the journey toward the first Artemis launch has been much longer.
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 launch by the end of 2016. And while the space 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 expected to cost the space agency (and taxpayers) $93 billion by 2025. Each individual flight of Artemis I, II and III is estimated to cost $4.1 billion.
The program has also drawn comparisons to other heavy-lift rockets from private companies such as SpaceX, which is building the Starship spacecraft. Like Artemis, the Starship is being 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 flights 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 delivered to Kennedy.
“You have your prototype, test vehicle and launch vehicle all in one,” she says.
And though Artemis I won’t carry astronauts, this rocket is still a “man-rated vehicle” according to Gertjejansen, meaning it has been certified safe to carry human crew.
Also unlike SpaceX’s Starship, Artemis is not designed to be reused. Each rocket will only launch once. So when private companies are launching and landing the same rockets for use on repeat missions, why spend all that money on a single-use rocket?
For NASA, reusability comes at a cost.
“Our mission 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 extra 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 needs heavy launch capability.
“By Artemis V, we’d like it to transition the production over to commercial,” says Dutreix. “If you build the rocket, you can sell it to anybody that needs heavy launch 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 going to Mars.”
And that’s the long-term vision. NASA wants Artemis to pave the way to deep space. 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 space race of the 1960s and ’70s by launching an elite group of astronauts on a journey into the unknown. Now NASA is doing it all again with Artemis, the sister of Apollo. A space program that will take more people into space — not just the 24 men who traveled to the moon during the Apollo age or the lucky dozen who got to press their feet into the lunar dust.
“This is our first, and it’s exciting,” says Dutreix. “I try to get the young engineers and scientists excited to realize that you’re making history. You don’t realize it now. But at one point, when you get to be my age, you realize, man, I was there when we started it.”