The path to outer space passed through New Orleans East
In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged NASA, and the nation, to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth. Four months later, on Sept. 7, New Orleans became a key player in the space race, when NASA announced it would build the moon mission’s massive Saturn rockets at the Michoud facility in New Orleans East.
The Michoud facility is still a vital part of the nation’s space program as NASA looks to Mars and beyond. Key parts of the Space Launch System rocket as well as the Orion spacecraft, which will be launched aboard the SLS, are being built and assembled at the site.
- The Michoud facility gets its name from Antoine Michoud, a French planter who operated a sugar cane plantation and refinery at the site in the 1700s.
- Before NASA took it over in 1961, shipbuilder Andrew Higgins used the site to fulfill a number of government contracts, including a top-secret mission to build components for the Manhattan Project.
- Dubbed the Michoud Assembly facility in 1965, the site contains 45 acres of air-conditioned manufacturing space under one roof, a space large enough to fit 31 football fields.
- Michoud also played a key role in NASA’s Space Shuttle program, building the shuttles’ external fuel tanks for the duration of the program, which ran from 1981 to 2011.
- In a 1962 speech at City Hall, Kennedy delivered what amounted to a space-race pep talk, challenging the local citizenry to be prepared to take advantage of what he predicted would be billions of dollars of investment in the Gulf Coast as part of the space program.
- Although they are more than 400 miles apart, the Michoud plant is technically part of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
- In addition to its government tenants, the sprawling Michoud complex is home to a number of private businesses, including Big Easy Stages, a film production facility that has hosted such movies as “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Jurassic World” and “Ender’s Game.”
For decades, the Michoud facility has provided New Orleans with key technical and manufacturing jobs — a sector that hasn’t historically been a strong suit for the city. In addition, though, it engenders no small amount of civic pride, as every time NASA blasts a manned rocket into space, locals can gaze skyward and say, “We helped do that.”