A Look Inside NASA's Spaceship Factory

The most striking thing about the Orion Crew Module is how small it is. NASA is so easily understood on television and film as a Giant Thing—impossibly large rockets and vast launch sites and fiery, apocalyptic launches to an infinite void—but when seen at a human scale—an Orion scale—its size is unnerving. This is it?

Orion is the first human-rated deep space vessel to be built by NASA in 40 years. It is a space capsule, and like the famed Apollo capsules, it is a vehicle of exploration. It was designed to take human beings to moons, asteroids, and other planets. Its intended reusability also makes it a replacement of sorts for the space shuttle, though unlike the shuttle, it was designed to travel much greater distances. The shuttle traveled to low Earth orbit; Orion can travel to Mars.

Its diameter is about the length of a mid-size sedan, and it will be mounted to the top of a rocket that's taller than the Statue of Liberty. After being shot into space, it is what astronauts will briefly call home—what will shield them from radiation, provide them warmth, and recycle their air and water. It is what will keep them alive.

Following decades of abandoned plans, doomed programs, and dashed hopes, it feels almost impossible to believe: Orion is real. The men and women of NASA took dreams and raw materials and turned them into something you can see and feel—something that will expand the physical presence of humanity by 150 million miles, and give future generations new horizons to watch the sun rise, and the Earth rise.

Last week at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, the newly built Orion pressure vessel—the core of the spacecraft that keeps "space" outside and air inside—was on display for the press, visiting officials, and the facility's 3000 workers. It was a sending-off party of sorts for the capsule. Yesterday it was loaded onto an enormous plane (with the ironic name "Super Guppy") and flown to Kennedy Space Center for some 200,000 parts to be added to it.

Steve Doering, the core stage manager of the Space Launch System (SLS), a 5.5 million-pound, 321-foot tall rocket.

At Michoud, it presented as a stout flying saucer wrapped in a latticework of metal framing. (The frame is actually one with the spacecraft itself; the grid of supports is machined into the slabs of aluminum comprising the vessel.) It seems from here almost like the rest is a formality. 

The opposite is true, of course. Nothing is perfunctory in human space exploration. Every bolt, fitting, gasket, and widget was chosen for a reason, and has to meet some extraordinarily rigid threshold of safety and reliability. After Orion is assembled at Kennedy, more tests will follow: of structural integrity and emergency abort sequences and avionics and system performance and interactions. In 2018 the spacecraft will launch as part of Exploration Mission 1, its course taking it to cis-lunar space—the vast area of space between the Earth and the Moon—around the far side of the Moon, and then back to Earth, where it will splash down into the Pacific Ocean. It will not be carrying people. If the mission is a success, humans will fly up on the launch that follows: Exploration Mission 2.


Michoud looks like a place where things are built. Spacecraft, yes, and rockets—the biggest ever imagined—but things all the same. With only slight changes, it could be a place where cars are manufactured, or supercomputers, or valves, or motors. Michoud is like the world's greatest high school metal shop, only instead of turning wrenches to automatic transmissions, the men and women here apply tools to spacecraft. Sheets of metal roll in the front door, and spaceships and rockets roll out the back.

The facility is located on the outskirts of New Orleans, amidst vast footprints of vacant land. Across the street from Michoud is a Folgers Coffee plant, leaving the air outside redolent with the soft bitterness of a newly opened bag of ground coffee. That itself is striking—the mix of coffee, concrete, cars, and cranes. This is where science fiction is realized, and it's all so normal. The workers here are some of the smartest people in the world doing some of the most challenging and important work in the world, but they seem like true workers in the grandest human sense of the word, the kinds of men and women otherwise seen with sleeves rolled up on wartime propaganda posters. Together we can do it! Keep 'em firing!

Mark Kirasich, the program manager of Orion, described the Orion team as the "craftsmen of the 21st century." In some beautiful future of humanity, this is the job where blue collar men and women punch in at 9, ply their trade, punch out, and grab beers before flying home on jetpacks. Today they build Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rockets that will take them into space. Previously, they built the 15-story external fuel tanks for the space shuttle, and the first stage of the Saturn V rockets that sent men to the Moon.

Here is how they built the pressure vessel of the Orion Crew Module. It is made of seven massive aluminum pieces: forward and aft bulkheads; a tunnel for docking with other spacecraft; three panels that form a cone; and a barrel, in which astronauts will live for days at a time, and weeks, if necessary. When NASA says seven panels make up the pressure vessel, they mean seven panels: there are no bolts or fasteners involved in its assembly. The pieces are fused through a special process called "self-reacting friction-stir welding." According to NASA, the welds first transform metal into a "plastic-like state" before special tools stir and bond the different pieces. Compared with other welds, the resultant weld is generally indistinguishable from the materials themselves.

Only seven main welds hold the entire thing together—half the number necessary to build the Orion test vehicle that launched successfully in 2014. This reduction in welds lightened this iteration of the vessel by 500 pounds of mass—a great achievement in an enterprise where more mass means more money.

Another result of the welding process is a pristine vessel assembly. During the Apollo program, capsules under construction registered hundreds of welding defects, each of which had to be corrected before astronauts could go up. So far, this new process has produced no defects at all. Having now perfected the technique, NASA officials expect to roll the welding process out to the private sector—a notable example of how the space program directly benefits American business.

To build America's fleet of rockets and crewed spacecraft, it takes 832 acres of land and 3.8 million square feet of total infrastructure. Michoud is part of an elegant third-coast assembly-line. The structural heart of Orion is built here, but so too is the Space Launch System (SLS), a 5.5-million-pound, 321-foot-tall rocket that is capable of producing 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. The first launch of the SLS will take place in 2018, and will carry Orion. The rocket is intended to send very heavy things very far into space at very high speeds—precisely what NASA needs to do in order to send people and equipment to Mars. SLS could also trim years from the travel time of a spacecraft to Europa, for example.

The process necessary to build SLS is almost as daunting as the rocket itself. Its liquid hydrogen tank requires the fabrication of 22-foot-tall barrels. To then stack the six barrels necessary for the core stage (the rocket's central propulsion element), massive lifts in a "vertical welding center" are used, each segment being lifted as though with a colossal Pez dispenser, with subsequent barrels inserted beneath and welded together using the self-reacting friction stir process.

At left, in blue, is the friction-stir welding machine, which creates the barrels that make up the SLS core stage. It welds together seven curved panels to form one 26.2-foot-diameter, 22-foot-tall barrel. 

After the core stage is built and rocket engines installed, SLS will be transported to the Michoud dock and loaded onto NASA's massive and specially modified Pegasus barge. It will sail east to John C. Stennis Space Center, where it will then be installed in the B2 test stand for hot fire tests. This is the same stand that tested the first stage of the Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo program. SLS will later sail farther east to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will launch Orion into space.


Humans will not fly on Exploration Mission 1 and might never fly inside of this particular Orion pressure vessel at all. NASA engineers will first have to analyze how the vessel held up during launch, maneuvers, reentry, descent, and water landing. In any event, humans will not fly on any Orion capsule at all until 2023, when Exploration Mission 2 launches, again toward the Moon. That will be the first time in over 50 years that human beings will have left low Earth orbit, the previous time being Apollo 17 in 1972.

In the very long term, SLS and the Orion Crew Module are going to send astronauts to Mars. That launch, however, is at least another 15 to 20 years away. NASA has never before attempted a project so ambitious over such a long stretch of time. (For a comparison of timelines, consider that the start of America's manned space program from zero through the final trip to the Moon only took 15 years total.) Meanwhile, NASA intends cis-lunar space to become a hive of activity. They are calling that region the "proving grounds." Future missions will place laboratory modules, habitat modules, and other structures into stable orbits for later pickup by Orion for missions of increasing length. The goal is to prove "Earth independence" for long-duration missions, which is critical if you want to press boot prints into Martian soil.

Reaching that point in our mission capabilities requires a certain clarity of vision. Whether Washington is up to the task remains an open question. Michoud certainly seems to be on able footing. When Steve Doering, the core stage manager of SLS, for example, explained how the rocket comes together, he wasn't speaking abstractly. He pointed at a 22-foot barrel of the core stage, but his countenance suggested that he was seeing a 321-foot rocket on the launch pad.

Such vision is necessary to overcome the challenges of life beyond Earth. Space is harsh. It doesn't want us there. Orion is humanity's defiance of the universe. You won't give us air? We'll bring it ourselves. You give us too much radiation? We'll ward it away. You confine us to one tiny planet? We'll populate the solar system, and we'll do it with logic and reason, science and engineering. We'll harness the metals and molecules of this world and use them to fly to another. We'll do it with hard work in factories like Michoud, and once we reach our goal, the question won't be "Now what?" but rather: "Where next?"

All images courtesy of David W. Brown.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Were You Meant to Be an Astronaut? Try Passing NASA's Project Mercury Intelligence Test
From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1958, NASA launched Project Mercury, its first manned space program. To have a manned space program, of course, it had to have astronauts. The men who would take part in the six Mercury flights were the first of their kind—in fact, the project even introduced the word "astronaut" as the term for American space explorers.

How did NASA choose the men for the team? Through a rigorous battery of tests, according to Popular Science, that measured their physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness for the job. The magazine recently recreated a small subset of those tests that you can take to see just how fit you might have been for the project.

The five tests Popular Science excerpts are only a fraction of what finalists had to endure. Out of 508 military pilots initially screened for inclusion, NASA hoped to find six astronauts who were the healthiest, smartest, most committed, and most psychologically stable men they could locate. After months of testing, they had such a hard time narrowing it down that they ended up choosing seven instead. Here’s how NASA describes just a small sliver of the process:

In addition to pressure suit tests, acceleration tests, vibration tests, heat tests, and loud noise tests, each candidate had to prove his physical endurance on treadmills, tilt tables, with his feet in ice water, and by blowing up balloons until exhausted. Continuous psychiatric interviews, the necessity of living with two psychologists throughout the week, and extensive self-examination through a battery of 13 psychological tests for personality and motivation, and another dozen different tests on intellectual functions and special aptitudes—these were all part of the week of truth.

In the end, seven were left: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton. Could you have been one of them? Well, you may not be able to test out your endurance in a pressure suit, but you can take a few of the psychological tests, including ones on spatial visualization, mechanical comprehension, hidden figures, progressive matrices, and analogies.

To test your skills, head over to our pals at Popular Science.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
7 Giant Machines That Changed the World—And 1 That Might
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

From a 17-mile-long particle accelerator to a football-field–sized space observatory, here are seven massive machines that have made an equally huge impact on how we build, how we observe our universe, and how we lift rockets into space. We've also included a bonus machine: a technological marvel-to-be that may be just as influential once it's completed.


Large Hadron Collider
Carlo Fachini, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator located at CERN outside of Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest machine in the world: It has a circumference of almost 17 miles and took around a decade to build. The tubes of the LHC are a vacuum; superconducting magnets guide and accelerate two high-energy particle beams, which are moving in opposite directions, to near-light-speed. When the beams collide, scientists use the data to find the answers to some of the most basic questions of physics and the laws that govern the universe we live in.

Since the LHC started up in 2008, scientists have made numerous groundbreaking discoveries, including finding the once-theoretical Higgs boson particle—a.k.a. the "God" particle—which helps give other particles mass. Scientists had been chasing the Higgs boson for five decades. The discovery illuminates the early development of the universe, including how particles gained mass after the Big Bang. Scientists are already working on the LHC's successor, which will be three times its size and seven times more powerful.


Built in 1965, NASA's crawler-transporters are two of the largest vehicles ever constructed: They weigh 2400 tons each and burn 150 gallons of diesel per mile. In contrast, the average semi truck gets roughly 6.5 miles per gallon. The vehicles' first job was to move Saturn V rockets—which took us to the moon and measured 35 stories tall when fully constructed—from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest single-room building in the world) to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The 4.2-mile trip was a slow one; the transporters traveled at a rate of 1 mph to ensure the massive rockets didn't topple over. Without a vehicle to move rockets from the spot they were stacked to the launch pad, we never could have gotten off the ground, much less to the moon.

After our moon missions, the crawler-transporters were adapted to service the Space Shuttle program, and moved the shuttles from 1981 to 2003. Since the retirement of the orbiters, these long-serving machines are once again being repurposed to transport NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS), which, at 38 stories tall, will be the biggest rocket ever constructed when it's ready, hopefully in a few years (the timeline is in flux due to budgetary issues).


National Ignition Facility (NIF) target chamber
Lawrence Livermore National Security, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Three football fields could fit inside the National Ignition Facility, which holds the largest, most energetic, and most precise laser in the world (it also has the distinction of being the world's largest optical instrument). NIF—which took about a decade to build and opened in 2009—is located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Its lasers are used to create conditions not unlike those within the cores of stars and giant planets, which helps scientists to gain understanding about these areas of the universe. The NIF is also being used to pursue the goal of nuclear fusion. If we can crack the code for this reaction that powers stars, we'll achieve unlimited clean energy for our planet.


When Seattle decided it needed a giant tunnel to replace an aging highway through the middle of the city, the city contracted with Hitachi Zosen Corporation to build the biggest tunnel boring machine in the world to do the job. The scope of Bertha's work had no precedent in modern-day digging, given the dense, abrasive glacial soil and bedrock it had to chew through.

In 2013, Bertha—named after Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle's first female mayor—was tasked with building a tunnel that would be big enough to carry four lanes of traffic (a two-lane, double-decker road). Bertha needed to carve through 1.7 miles of rock, and just 1000 feet in, the 57-foot, 6559-ton machine ran into a steel pipe casing that damaged it. Many predicted that Bertha was doomed, but after a massive, on-the-spot repair operation by Hitachi Zosen that took a year-and-a-half, the borer was up and running again.

In April 2017, Bertha completed its work, and engineers started the process of dismantling it; its parts will be used in future tunnel boring machines. Bertha set an example for what is possible in future urban tunnel work—but it's unlikely that tunnel boring machines will get much bigger than Bertha because of the sheer weight of the machine and the amount of soil it can move at once. Bertha's tunnel is scheduled to open in 2019.


international space station

The international space station is a highly efficient machine, equipped with instrumentation and life support equipment, that has kept humans alive in the inhospitable environment of low-Earth orbit since November 2, 2000. It's the biggest satellite orbiting the Earth made by humans. The major components were sent into space over a two-year period, but construction has slowly continued over the last decade, with astronauts adding the Columbus science laboratory and Japanese science module. The first module, Zarya, was just 41.2 feet by 13.5 feet; now, the ISS is 356 feet by 240 feet, which is slightly larger than a football field. The station currently has about 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume the crew can move about in. That's about the same area as a Boeing 747 (though much of the ISS's space is taken up by equipment). The U.S.'s solar panels are as large as eight basketball courts.

From the space station, scientists have made such important discoveries as what extended zero-G does to the human body, where cosmic rays come from, and how protein crystals can be used to treat cancer. Though NASA expects the most modern modules of the ISS to be usable well into the 2030s, by 2025 the agency may begin "transitioning" much of its ISS operations—and costs—to the private sector [PDF] with an eye on expanding the commercial potential of space.


The Laser Inferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually made up of four different facilities—two laboratories and two detectors located 2000 miles apart, in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors, which took about five years to build and were inaugurated in 1999, are identical L-shaped vacuum chambers that are about 2.5 miles long and operate in unison. The mission of these machines is to detect ripples in the fabric of spacetime known as gravitational waves. Predicted in 1915 by Einstein's theory of general relativity, gravitational waves were entirely theoretical until September 2015, when LIGO detected them for the first time. Not only did this provide further confirmation of general relativity, it opened up entirely new areas of research such as gravitational wave astronomy. The reason the two detectors are so far from each other is to reduce the possibility of false positives; both facilities must detect a potential gravitational wave before it is investigated.


Antonov An-225 in Paramaribo
Andrew J. Muller, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Russians originally had a rival to the U.S. Space Shuttle program: a reusable winged spacecraft of their own called the Buran—and in the 1980s, they developed the AN-225 Mriya in order to transport it. With a wingspan the size of the Statue of Liberty, a 640-ton weight, six engines, and the ability to lift into the air nearly a half-million pounds, it's the longest and heaviest plane ever built. Mriya first flew in 1988, and since the Buran was mothballed in 1990 after just one flight (due to the breakup of the Soviet Union rather than the plane's capabilities), the AN-225 has only been used sparingly.

The monster plane has inspired new ideas. In 2017, Airspace Industry Corporation of China signed an agreement with Antonov, the AN-225's manufacturer, to built a fleet of aircraft based on the AN-225's design that would carry commercial satellites on their backs and launch them into space. Currently, virtually all satellites are launched from rockets. Meanwhile, Stratolaunch, a company overseen by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is building a plane that will be wider (but not longer) than Mriya. The giant plane will carry a launch vehicle headed for low-Earth orbit.


This forward-thinking project, funded by Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, focuses on reminding people about their long-term impact on the world. Instead of a traditional clock measuring hours, minutes, and seconds, the Clock of the Long Now measures times in years and centuries. The clock, which will be built inside a mountain on a plot of land in western Texas owned by Bezos, will tick once per year, with a century hand that advances just once every 100 years. The cuckoo on the clock will emerge just once per millennium. Construction began on the clock in early 2018. When this massive clock is completed—timeline unknown—it will be 500 feet high. What will be the impact of this one? Only the people of the 120th century will be able to answer that question.


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