NEW ORLEANS – The route to the moon and perhaps to Mars now goes through New Orleans — and the detour couldn't come at a better time in the city's struggle to rebuild its shattered economy after Hurricane Katrina.
With thousands of houses still in ruins and its population reduced by almost 170,000, a boost is on the way for New Orleans in the form of high-wage jobs and contracts for next-generation space systems at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility.
Before the storm, New Orleans' economy thrived on low-wage tourism. But the $156 million payroll at Michoud — some salaries are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — generates paychecks significantly above the city's median annual income of about $27,000.
Michoud, in the city's eastern section, had a cloudy future before the storm struck in August 2005: The space shuttle fuel tanks it used to turn out won't be needed after the shuttle program ends in 2010, and there was no sure replacement for one of the region's largest payrolls.
The outlook is much brighter now that three contracts associated with NASA's Constellation program have landed this year and last at Michoud. James Bray, director of Lockheed Martin's Orion project at Michoud, called the facility "a sleeping giant" for the New Orleans economy.
"It's been a jewel that a lot of people pass on the interstate and don't really realize is here," Bray said. "But if you look at the population of New Orleans and Slidell and along the Gulf Coast, you find very technical, qualified people that come into here and make the space program go."
Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin will build the Orion crew module at the 43-acre plant. And Chicago-based Boeing Co. will build the $1.13 billion upper stage of the Ares I launch rocket and the rocket's $799.5 million navigation and control system there.
With 2,400 workers, Michoud is an economic force in a section of the city that was hit hard by Katrina and has been slow to recover.
"For New Orleans east, it's one of the big players. If you look around at who has the number of jobs, and the number of high paying jobs, you're not going to find much in New Orleans east that's even going to come close," said Louisiana State University economist Loren Scott.
"This type of facility that uses high-wage, high-skill jobs tends to create other types of jobs."
At the height of the shuttle program in the 1980s before the Challenger disaster, the facility had about 5,000 employees. It's unclear what the employment level will be once the shuttle program ends. About 200 employees have joined Lockheed's Orion program, and the payroll's expected to number 500 within two years. Boeing has said it expects several hundred workers to be at Michoud for its contracts.
The first test flight of Orion will occur in 2014 and astronauts could return to the moon by late 2019 or 2020 with possible later missions to Mars, NASA says.
Like the shuttle program, Constellation's economic impact could last decades even if it creates fewer jobs.
And space may not be the only frontier for Michoud, which built cargo planes during World War II and tank engines during the Korean War — as well as the Saturn rockets for the Apollo and Skylab space programs.
The National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, an 8-year-old partnership of NASA and the state of Louisiana, has developed new welding and fabrication techniques at Michoud for lightweight composite materials.
"If you look at the aerospace industry in general, they're booked to capacity," Bray said. "Having the equipment here and available in Louisiana, it makes sense to put more work into this location, which will bring in more jobs."
Marco Caceras, a space industry analyst with Teal Group Inc., a Fairfax, Va.-based aerospace and defense consulting firm, said that even after the shuttle program ends, the United States will — at a minimum — need a way to ferry crew and cargo to the space station.
"The program likely will be tweaked in the future, but it will remain robust," Caceras said.
Michoud also recently gained a voice in Washington in the form of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who has been appointed the top-ranking member of the Senate subcommittee with space program oversight, replacing outgoing Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., at year's end.
Michoud workers are excited about the future.
Robert Campbell, senior manager of production integration for Lockheed Martin, has been at Michoud since 1974 and looks forward to a repeat of the pioneering days.
"Looking at Orion, this is more of a challenge to us because the agenda is to go back to the moon," he said. "We're back to the days of where we were with Gemini and Apollo. A lot of people don't know how big the Orion program is and what it can do for us here."
Melissa Brooks, who's worked a month on the shuttle tank's foam insulation system and hopes to stay for future projects. Her father has worked at Michoud for 26 years.
"I do plan on retiring here," she said.