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NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility
Aerial view of Michoud Assembly Facility Image above: Aerial view of Michoud Assembly Facility
Image credit: Lockheed Martin

The story of Michoud stretches 200 years back into history, when a 34,500-acre royal grant of land was obtained from the governor of the French colony of Louisiana.

The original grant was made on March 10, 1763, to Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent, a soldier of the king and successful New Orleans merchant. The tract was located about 15 miles east of New Orleans in a swampy area where cypress trees and muskrat abounded. St. Maxent owned the plantation for some 31 years.

Two years after St. Maxent's death in 1794, his heirs sold the plantation at public auction to Lieutenant Louis Brognier de Clouet, descendant of another prominent Creole family. Finding the easy life of New Orleans society fascinating, de Clouet soon saw his fortune dwindling. In 1801, he sold the huge tract of land to Bartolomey Lafon, a prospering iron master with a foundry in New Orleans.

Following the Louisiana Purchase, Lafon obtained a clear confirmation of his title to the plantation property from the new U. S. government. In 1805, he made a strong case for a road across his land as a link in a mail route to the new government's capitol in Washington, D. C.

At Lafon's death in 1830, the plantation was left to a brother in France, Jean Pierre Lafon. For the first time, portions of the original 34,000-acre estate were sold. Creditors claimed the property, and lots were broken away from the main tract at sheriff's sales. Pierre Lafon came to New Orleans to claim his inheritance but died shortly after arrival. His children sold the remainder of the plantation in October 1827 to Antoine Michoud, another bachelor.

Michoud, highly educated and cultured, came to New Orleans after the fall of Napoleon and established an objects d'art business on Royal Street. Developing a wide circle of influential friends, Michoud changed from an art dealer to a commercial broker. Growing wealthier, he invested in real estate in New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

Later in life, Michoud became a social recluse, dealing in hardware. This venture ended in 1854 in a fire, which resulted in an estimated damage of $30,000. Michoud was soon back in business opposite the Pontchartrain railroad station with a larger stock of secondhand hardware. His fortune was said to have exceeded $200,000 when he died in 1862 at the age of 80, unattended by relatives. But, over the years, Michoud had painstakingly bought back all the small lots that had been sold from the main plantation after Bartolomey Lafon's death. The entire tract went to his nephew, Jean Baptiste Michoud, in France.

Baptiste Michoud never saw the Michoud Plantation. Through his attorneys in New Orleans, he sold a right-of-way through the plantation and a lot for a station to the New Orleans, Mobile and Chattanooga Railroad Company, which later became the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. In 1873, he sold the shore of Point-Aux-Herbes to the U.S. government for a lighthouse. When he died in 1877, his only son, Marie Alphonse Michoud, became owner of Michoud Plantation.

During his brief ownership, Alphonse Michoud sold a right-of-way to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1900. Then in 1910, he sold the plantation to John Stuart Watson for $410,000 in cash.

Watson immediately sold the land to his firm, the New Orleans Drainage Company, which tried to sell stock for draining and developing the tract. The bonds issued by the company were held by a Chicago bank. When the drainage company defaulted on its notes, the bank ordered the property sold. Years of litigation followed.

The next individual to own the property was a New Orleans realtor, Roch Eugene Edgar de Montluzin du Sauzay. After many fruitless attempts, de Montluzin finally acquired the property in 1923. He foresaw the plantation's development possibilities for the eventual spread of New Orleans toward the east. Meanwhile, he sold timber for crossties and leased the broad marshlands for trapping the abundant muskrat. He granted the government permission to build a 7.5-mile section of the Intercoastal Canal through the property and gave rights-of-way for power and telephone lines. During the depression years, de Montluzin managed to hold his huge property intact.

When the United States entered World War II, war plants sprang up across the country, characteristic of this country's "arsenal of democracy." Mobilization came to Michoud Plantation.

Two defense projects centered around the Michoud site. At the outbreak of the war, the plantation was selected by the U. S. Maritime Commission for a $30 million shipyard for the building of Liberty ships by Higgins Industries of New Orleans. A 1,000-acre tract of the Michoud Plantation was bought for this purpose. The dredging of a connecting canal from the plant site to the nearby Intra Coastal Canal was undertaken by the U. S. Corps of Engineers. Construction of the shipyard begun soon after the signing of the contract.

By an Act of Congress dated August 12, 1942, the partially-built shipyard was taken over by the government for building large plywood cargo planes. Higgins Industries was given a contract in October, 1942, for the manufacture of 1,200 of these cargo planes.

Because of the swampy nature of the land, a good deal of earth fill-in and the driving of a large number of piles were necessary. This seriously delayed the progress of construction work, and the Maritime Commission decided to abandon the project. The contract with Higgins Industries was canceled July 18, 1942.

The plant was completed and dedicated October 4, 1943, in an Army Air Corps ceremony. However, the new project did not materialize as planned. The Air Corps soon decided to drop the cargo plane program. The plant was closed November 10, 1945, and taken over by the War Assets Administration.

After much negotiation, the New Orleans Dock Board signed an agreement to rent the facility for 15 years. The board was to acquire title to the property at the end of the period, after paying a total of $9,506,941.

The Michoud facilities at that time consisted of a 1.8 million-square-foot main manufacturing building; a 78,000-square-foot, two-story office building; an 108,000-square-foot, two-story engineering building; a 24,000-square-foot boiler house; and several minor buildings.

With the beginning of the Korean War, the Army Ordnance Corps was looking for a place to make tank engines. It discussed a long-term lease with the Dock Board but decided it would be more desirable for the government to retain title to the property, in view of the large amount of money to be spent for rehabilitation. Condemnation proceedings were instituted, and the Federal District Court in New Orleans handed down an award to the government on April 25, 1951.

The Chrysler Corporation of Detroit was awarded a $30 million contract in January 1951, to set up a facility for manufacturing tank engines. The engine was designed to power the Army's Patton 47 and 48 tanks, as well as the giant Sherman tank. The plant was officially opened on November 28, 1951. Peak employment by Chrysler was about 2,200.

By 1954, the plant was dormant again and costing the government $140 000 per year to keep up. The facility had remained under the supervision of the U. S. Army. Wernher von Braun, the first director of the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., directed NASA's attention to availability of the Michoud site. The NASA center in Huntsville had responsibility for providing the massive and powerful Saturn rockets intended to launch the first humans on a journey to the lunar surface.

Large as it was, the aerospace complex in Huntsville could not accommodate the escalating dimensions of the Saturn program. Consistent with its heritage as an Army arsenal with an extensive in-house capability, Marshall manufactured the first eight models of the Saturn I first stage and conducted testing in its backyard. The physical size of other Saturn stages, the frequency of testing as production models came on line and the sheer magnitude of the endeavor dictated the need for additional facilities located elsewhere. With so many jobs available and the level of economic activity to be generated by the manufacture of large rocket boosters, selection of Michoud occurred in a highly-charged political atmosphere, with active lobbying by a number of congressmen and chambers of commerce from around the country. Finally, NASA announced the selection of the Michoud site on September 7, 1961.

The facility easily fulfilled several high-priority considerations. These included production space and availability. The Saturn IB and Saturn V first stages were manufactured at Michoud. The prime contractors, Chrysler and Boeing, respectively, jointly occupied Michoud's 2.2 million square feet of manufacturing floor space and nearly 732,000 square feet of total office space. The basic manufacturing building, one of the largest in the country, boasted 43 acres under one roof. By 1964, NASA added a separate engineering and office building, vertical assembly building and test stage building.

Michoud, where the 32.8-foot-diameter Saturn V first stage would be fabricated, was located on the Intracoastal Waterway, a water transport route for the oversized Saturn stages. Michoud was also near New Orleans, a major metropolitan area. In addition, it was within reasonable proximity to NASA's Marshall Center and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Finally, Michoud was only 35 miles away from a contemplated Saturn test-firing site on the Pearl River in southwestern Mississippi.

On December 13, 1963, Dr. Wernher von Braun participated in a ceremony at Michoud, marking the completion of production of the first Chrysler-built Saturn I and the presentation of the booster to NASA. Referring to the completed booster, Von Braun told employees "you have reason to be proud of this bird behind me… you have reason to be proud of this facility, which was not nearly as neat and slick as it looks today, when we first got here. In fact, two years ago, where I’m standing now, it was raining. The foundations were torn off, and there was a false ceiling through the entire 43-acre building. You have converted this wreck of an industrial facility into one of the cleanest and nicest facilities in the space business anywhere."

By 1966, changes to the Michoud site included enlarged barge facilities and other miscellaneous support buildings. However, two things remained unchanged: a pair of chimneys in front of the Administration Building, remnants of the old and never-successful sugar plantation. These ungainly artifacts served as reminders of Michoud's checkered past. Never a successful plantation, its sometime-production of lumber and other local resources from the swampy environs helped generate the local slogan, "from muskrats to moon ships."

Construction of the Saturn S-IB and S-IC boosters continued at the Michoud facility until the early 1970s, when work began on the space shuttle, the next generation launch vehicle.

In addition to responsibility for the space shuttle main engines and solid rocket booster, the Marshall Center was named manager of the shuttle external tank projects. In August 1973, NASA named the Denver Division of the Martin Marietta Corporation for negotiation of the contract for the design, development and test evaluation of the external tank. NASA stipulated that tank assembly would take place at Marshall’s Michoud Facility.

In October 1975, Marshall reported that fixtures were nearing completion at Michoud for manufacturing the external tank, which stood 154 feet tall and was 27 feet in diameter. Weighing more than 1.5 million pounds, the tank was designed to hold more than a million gallons of propellant. Several of the fixtures at the site were more than half the length of a football field and several stories high. Two fixtures at Michoud, each supported by massive steel tripods anchored in concrete on each side, were so imposing that they were nicknamed "Trojan Horses."

During the first half of the 1970s, tooling required to build the tank was assembled at Michoud. Some of the tools weighed up to 300,000 pounds. In the first few months of 1976, more than 1,298 tons of material -- mostly smaller items -- for tooling and fixtures had been delivered by some 78 trucks from a supplier in Dallas, and other loads were expected. “Before all required items have been delivered, an estimated 225 trucks will have been involved, about 75 percent of which would carry oversize loads,” NASA reported.

Tooling size required floor strengthening and other modifications at Michoud. In addition, training programs in aerospace manufacturing techniques were in progress for locally-hired machine operators who had experience in less precise ship-building.

In November 1975, the critical design review for the external tank was completed at Michoud, clearing the way for production. By July 1976, workers were assembling the first tank. By April 1977, hydrostatic testing -- pressurization with water -- had been completed on the liquid oxygen part of the tank. Then, on September 9, 1977, the first external tank poked its huge nose out of the main assembly building at Michoud and rolled slowly out on its transporter into the sunshine.

In a brief ceremony preceding the rollout, Marshall Director William R. Lucas told those present that the rollout was particularly noteworthy. “The external tank is of first-order importance to the space shuttle system. It not only contains the propellants that operate the main engines, but it also becomes the structural backbone of the system with both solid rocket boosters and the orbiter attached to it."

Following Lucas' remarks, the main Michoud building opened and the tank rolled out to the cheers and applause from the spectators. It was then pulled to the Michoud dock and loaded on a barge for the trip to NASA National Space Technology Laboratories, now known as Stennis Space Center, in Mississippi.

On July 6, 1979, the first flight external tank was delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where it would be mated to the orbiter, Columbia, for the first flight of the space shuttle in 1981.