Workers at NASA's Michoud facility exuded a lot of pride Friday as the world's largest spacecraft welding machine was unveiled for the world to see.
It towers 170 feet and will assemble parts of NASA's new rocket that will propel humans into deep outer space to asteroids, and even Mars. The formal name for the welding tool is the Vertical Assembly Center which is 78 feet wide. Specifically, it will put the pieces together for what's called the "core stage" of NASA's next generation of rockets, called the Space Launch System.
SLS is to be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, according to NASA. The core stage in itself will be more than 200 feet tall and will store cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that will feed the rocket's four R2-25 engines.
"We're on our way to Mars and I really mean that," said former astronaut and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden who came to town for the ribbon cutting ceremony attended by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, U.S. Senator David Vitters, and others.
The manned Orion space capsule will be situated atop the core.
"This tool right here is where we take the pieces of the core and we weld them together in the vertical position," said Todd May, SLS Program Manager.
The completion of the mammoth welding apparatus is seen as no small feat and Bolden was effusive in praising those who made it happen.
"The people of New Orleans and this vicinity, you should stick your chest out every time says where do you live, what's near you and say I'm from the Michoud community and we're building a rocket that's going to take humans to Mars and that is a big, big deal," he said.
Local Michoud workers looked on with excitement.
"It's going to be a very exciting day, Monday, when we do our first weld, right and after that we go through the acceptance testing," said senior fabrication technician, Wil Walsten.
He has been at Michoud for 31 years.
But the latest project is not enough to return the facility to an enormous resource for locals jobs. At one point there were upwards of 10,000 workers contributing to America's presence in space.
NASA's final space shuttle mission was launched in the summer of 2011 taking with it what remained of the heydays of the Michoud facility. After massive layoffs, now only 600 local contractors are working on this latest project.
"I can't think of a greater symbol for where the city of New Orleans is in her history as we suffered from the devastation of 911, from Katrina, from Rita, from Ike, Gustav from the national oil spill, the people of New Orleans said we're not going to quit," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
And the welding tool, in addition to being humongous is also very intelligent. NASA says it will be able to determine whether the welding job is good or not.
"One of the most technologically advanced tools ever built. It's actually capable of finding its position within two-thousandths of an inch and yet it is so large it is a170 feet tall," stated May.
It is a towering tool that will help man soar to heights well beyond that.
"Science is a reason but not the reason. The most important reason is because humanity is an exploring species," said Bolden.