What’s A Spacecraft Factory Like? Think Big!

“I’ve been to the Smithsonian,” said one awed observer. “I’ve seen crew capsules before. They’re not that big!”

Last month, welding concluded on the pressure vessel, the basic structure of the Orion deep-space crew vehicle. Workers from around the country who had prepared components and materials for the spacecraft were invited to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans to see the culmination of their labor before it was transported to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for completion.

The Orion team at the Michoud Assembly Facility poses with the Exploration Mission 1 crew module pressure vessel
The Orion team at the Michoud Assembly Facility poses with the Exploration Mission 1 crew module pressure vessel prior to its transfer to the Kennedy Space Center ,where it will undergo final assembly in preparation for flight in 2018.

Even to those who helped build it, and even in that unfinished state, Orion was an impressive sight. Workers found themselves standing feet away from the core of a spacecraft that will travel around the moon, farther into space than Apollo ever went, and then return to Earth; hardware that they had helped create. And even though they had seen components of it, some expressed surprise at the size of what they’d helped build.

From a big crew vehicle to a big rocket to “the world’s largest dishwasher” (What’s that? Keep reading) “big” was the word of the day when the team at Michoud marked the completion of welding of the pressure vessel for the first Orion capsule to fly on a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

It was … well, a big deal.

Which is appropriate, because Michoud Assembly Facility is a big place. Originally built in 1940 to produce plywood airplanes for World War II, Michoud is one of the largest manufacturing plants in the world, with the main facility covering 43 acres under one roof. Michoud became a NASA facility in 1961. Among its contributions, Michoud produced stages for Saturn V rockets, and the external tanks that fueled every space shuttle flight.

The Orion pressure vessel at Kennedy Space Center
The Orion pressure vessel has now arrived at Kennedy Space Center, where it will be outfitted for its next mission, going beyond the moon.

Today Michoud is a multi-user facility, with government and commercial tenants. Walk through Michoud, and as you begin to understand just how big 43 acres is. As you come in, you see state-of-the-art tooling being used for Orion and SLS. Venture even farther, and you find private companies making use of the factory’s diverse array of equipment including some of the same tools that sent men to the moon. (The factory is also home to some big movies – just recently, filming has taken place there for “Jurassic World” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” among others.)

How big is Michoud? The factory is so large that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you could walk through and totally miss the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world – not because it’s easily missed, but because it’s set apart from the main floor in its own separate chamber, behind one of many bay doors and a couple of mundane-looking doorways. Enter the chamber, however, and there is nothing mundane about the 170-foot-tall Vertical Assembly Center, a new tool built custom for SLS. Into the VAC are placed 27.6-foot diameter barrels, domes and rings, and it welds them together into giant fuel tanks for the SLS core stage. Then they go in the “largest dishwasher,” as SLS core stage manager Steve Doering referred to it at the event, a piece of equipment on the other side of the chamber that washes them post-welding.

Overhead view of the Vertical Assembly Center and a welded barrel stack
Core stage barrel sections are now being welded together to form fuel tank test articles in the Vertical Assembly Center at Michoud.

On the day of the event, visitors to the chamber of the Vertical Assembly Center were greeted by its first product – a stack of two barrels, about 40 feet high, which filled the entrance to the VAC chamber. By itself, the stack looms over visitors as they approach it, but it invites a quick mental calculation: The core stage of SLS will be five times taller still than that. And that’s still less than two-thirds the height of the entire rocket. It’s big.

Orion then traveled to Kennedy Space Center to be outfitted as a cutting-edge spacecraft. At the same time, the SLS fuel tanks are in production at MAF and will undergo testing before a complete SLS core stage is test fired and shipped to Kennedy as well. There, the core stage and the SLS boosters and upper stage will join Orion for stacking and then launch.

And that will be one really big day.

Next Time: Think You’re Stressed? Try Being A Rocket

Join in the conversation: Visit our Facebook page to comment on the post about this blog. We’d love to hear your feedback!