America’s space program is taking major steps on a bold new path. NASA’s challenge is nothing less than to develop the knowledge and technology that will carry explorers farther from Earth than ever before, to Mars and back.

Landmark progress has been made and, in a very real sense, the journey to Mars is launching in Louisiana. At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, a uniquely skilled workforce already is building the core stage of the Space Launch System. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built, able to launch bigger, heavier payloads and send scientific instruments or astronauts more quickly to new, deep-space destinations.

Michoud is also where Orion — NASA’s first new human spacecraft in a generation — is taking shape. Last December, an unmanned Orion spacecraft was launched, orbited Earth, splashed down and was recovered in the Pacific Ocean after a tremendously successful test flight that evaluated critical systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes and the heat shield.

SLS and Orion are being built at Michoud with machines, materials and specialized techniques that didn’t exist just a few years ago, and which have been pioneered by NASA for use by aerospace and other industries. Some were developed by and belong to the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Michoud, a partnership among NASA, the state of Louisiana, Louisiana State University and the University of New Orleans.

On Thursday, NASA is hosting Louisiana Aerospace Day at the Capitol in Baton Rouge to recognize the space agency’s enduring partnerships in the state. This is not the first time Louisiana has played such an essential role in maintaining America’s space leadership. For more than 50 years, the 832-acre Michoud facility in New Orleans East has been NASA’s premiere builder of large-scale space structures and systems. The legendary Saturn V moon rockets and the 15-story-tall external fuel tanks for the space shuttle fleet were built there.

Michoud’s location and concentration of human and technological resources have attracted other federal agencies and a number of private companies to base manufacturing, motion picture production and other operations there. NASA has invested more than $1 billion at Michoud during the past six years to prepare for the new era of space exploration and ensure the facility remains a vital, efficient, multi-tenant, high-tech manufacturing hub.

According to a 2013 economic impact study, an estimated 3,300 employees are working at Michoud every day.

Statewide, Michoud has an employment impact of more than 5,240 jobs, and the facility’s activities are responsible for $308 million in labor income, $819 million in economic output and more than $19 million in state and local taxes each year.

During NASA Louisiana Aerospace Day activities on Thursday at the state Capitol, exhibits will highlight the work at Michoud on SLS and other space programs, and the work being done at Louisiana universities to prepare the next generation of engineers and explorers.

We will celebrate the historic roles Louisiana and the Michoud Assembly Facility have played in building the spacecraft of the past and the robust effort now under way to launch SLS — America’s next great ship, the one that will take humans to Mars.

We are on the way. And we are proud and thankful that you are joining us on the journey.

Patrick Scheuermann, a native of New Orleans, is director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The Marshall Center manages the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, the Space Launch System and a broad portfolio of exploration and science programs for NASA.