Depending on Wednesday's weather, a crew of six could embark this week on a different kind of NASA mission: a nearly two-week, 1,240-mile journey on three rivers to transport a hulking, 60,000-pound section of a new mega-rocket from NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East to Huntsville, Alabama.
For more than a year, workers at Michoud have been building the 33-foot-tall engine section, welding together panels and installing thousands of instruments. It's one of four parts to the Space Launch System's core stage that will be ferried to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville in the coming years.
The SLS mega-rocket is designed to transport astronauts into deep space. But this particular piece of equipment won't be what gets them there.
Instead, four parts of the core stage will be transported on NASA's Pegasus covered barge to Huntsville, where they will undergo structural testing that includes being pushed, pulled and twisted, to see how they can withstand the forces the rocket will experience during launch and flight.
The engine section is built to the same specifications as what's intended to fly on the first mission.
Frequently referring to Michoud as "NASA's rocket factory," agency officials opened its doors to reporters Tuesday ahead of the engine's planned departure in order to show off the equipment and tout the local facility's role in the federal government's goal of sending humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars not long afterward.
NASA’s Michoud facility, situated on 832 acres, has about 1,000 NASA employees and contractors, and another 2,500 employees who work for nearly two dozen other tenants.
The facility was heavily damaged by February's tornado, but Keith Hefner, the facility's director, said many of the employees are back to work.
One exception: the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Finance Center, which has 1,300 employees.
Repairs to that agency's building are expected to take another three or four months, displacing all but about 100 workers, Hefner said. "That's sort of the last piece of getting everybody back," he said.
Data gathered from the testing will be used with analytical models to determine whether the engine section's design is sound.
In time, Pegasus will ferry the flight-ready rocket's 212-foot-tall core stage — the backbone of the rocket — to NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for testing and then to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Pegasus was refurbished in 2014 to handle the rocket, and it's now 310 feet long. It's propelled by two tugboats.
Once the engine section arrives in Alabama, testing won't begin immediately. First, it'll be unloaded, then transported about six miles to the testing site.
It'll take about four months to get it prepped and put into a large steel testing stand, then to connect its hydraulic lines and thousands of instruments, officials said Tuesday.
The testing itself will take about four months and is expected to begin in the fall.
But first, it's got to get to the barge.
To do that, NASA plans to use a lowboy trailer that moves at a slow walking pace, according to Tim Flores, the project's integration manager. From the Michoud facility to the barge is about a mile, and that trip will likely take about two hours.
Then, there's about a 150-yard space leading to the barge, with a yellow line in the middle where it needs to line up.
The clearance between the top of the Pegasus and the engine section is about four inches, Flores said.
"This part will be the slowest part," he added.
As of Tuesday, the engine section was slated to be loaded onto the barge Wednesday, but the weather is the deciding factor.
The trailer handling the engine section can handle winds of about 25 mph, but more than that and the operation will have to wait.
"I'm more worried about the thunderstorms than the wind at this point," Flores said.