For NASA, plans to send humans into deep space – and ultimately, Mars – run through New Orleans.
"We're building the rocket at the Michoud Facility here in New Orleans that's going to be the backbone of the system that carries us further into space than we've ever been able to go," said John Honeycutt, NASA's deputy manager for the project. "This is the rocket that is going to take us to Mars."
Known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, officials say it's poised to be the most powerful and largest rocket ever built. A crew of about 280 people is currently working on the rocket at Michoud, a workforce that is expected to grow during later phases.
Boeing is the primary contractor for the New Orleans-based work to build a large section of the SLS called the core stage.
Michael Raftery, Boeing's Director of Exploration for the International Space Station, said the rocket's tremendous size will be critical in future Mars missions. In its top configuration, the rocket will be able to lift more than 286,000 pounds with a 20 percent greater thrust than the Saturn V.
"You have to be able to take a lot of supplies because it's very far away and you don't have any kind of supply chain. Whatever you need, you have to take with you. In order to do that, we have to pre-deploy a lot of stuff and that means we need a big rocket," Raftery said.
It's the latest chapter in Michoud Assembly Facility's deep history, playing key roles in some of NASA's biggest missions from Apollo to the Space Shuttle.
"The entire community here should be very proud of what's happening here in New Orleans. You cannot get to deep space without going through New Orleans," said Boeing's SLS Program Manager, Ginger Barnes. "It's very challenging. We're building on the legacy of giants."
That foundation, project leaders said, will help propel future journeys deeper into the solar system than ever before.
"This is where we get out beyond the bounds of Earth," said Rick Navarro, SLS Manufacturing Director with Boeing. "We have been learning about working and living in Low Earth Orbit through the space station and now we can apply that to get beyond the planet. Now we can go explore again and go to destinations like the moon, go to destinations like Mars and the moons of Mars. We're going to learn a lot and explore, getting back to our roots as explorers."
The capsule that will hold astronauts for the future missions is called Orion.
According to NASA, an unmanned launch for Orion, with SLS propelling it, is scheduled for December 2017, while the first manned launch is targeted for 2021.
According to program leaders, the goal is to send humans to Mars sometime in the 2030's.