Guest column: Louisiana is contributing in the mission to Mars _lowres

Todd May

Getting humans to Mars and back will be one of the most difficult undertakings humanity has ever taken. But we are up to the challenge. Louisiana plays a critical part and has made human space exploration possible since the beginning of the space program.

Fifty-five years ago this week, the first American to fly in space was launched aboard a small rocket. Eight short years after the 15-minute flight, a rocket built at the 832-acre Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on an eight-day voyage to the moon and back.

For three decades, Michoud built the 15-story-tall external tank for the space shuttle program, a program that revolutionized space exploration and discovery. It is, therefore, only fitting that NASA turns to the workforce of Louisiana for help on the next great journey: the journey to Mars.

At Michoud, the first pieces of flight hardware for the Space Launch System — the world’s most powerful rocket that will send humans on the voyage to deep space — have been completed. Michoud’s state-of-the-art Vertical Assembly Center is the world’s largest spacecraft welding tool, standing 170 feet tall and nearly 80 feet wide, and it will construct the SLS core stage. In January, the primary structure for the Orion spacecraft that will fly on the SLS’s maiden voyage was completed at Michoud.

Building such complex equipment and hardware requires a highly skilled and trained workforce. For over 50 years, Louisiana has provided that skilled, talented workforce to NASA and the country. NASA’s strong partnerships with local governments, colleges and universities are vital to the continued success of the programs and the agency.

In addition to supporting NASA, this work produces jobs and stimulates the local and regional economies.

The work done by NASA and our tenants translates into thousands of jobs in Louisiana and nearly $1 billion in economic impact to the state and region.

On Thursday, we will recognize Louisiana’s contributions to NASA’s space exploration endeavors at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. Educational exhibits in the Capitol Rotunda will tell the NASA story, and astronaut Steve Bowen will be on hand to talk with visitors at 11:30 a.m. In addition to NASA exhibits, LSU and Scotlandville Magnet High School Human Exploration Rover Challenge teams will show off custom-built rovers. The teams competed in the NASA challenge, which requires student teams to design, build and race a human-powered vehicle around a specialized course that mimics terrain seen on the moon and Mars. Woodlawn High School also will display NASA-sponsored robotics work.

Louisiana provides vital support to NASA’s exploration mission and will play a key role in sending new voyages of discovery to Mars — extending a human presence across the solar system and maintaining the nation’s preeminence in space. Thank you for joining us on the journey.

Todd May is director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Marshall Center manages the Michoud Assembly Facility, the Space Launch System and a broad portfolio of exploration and science programs for NASA.