NASA's Spaceship Factory

Last week I visited NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to view the newly-built Orion pressure vessel. I found the whole thing to be a deeply moving experience, and a glimpse of the kind of future we all want desperately for our grandchildren, and for the human species. I am very proud of this essay that came out of the event. It's published at Mental Floss, and I hope it finds a good audience. A little sample:

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!

Read the rest here.

Testing Rocket Engines

Last month I attended a NASA test of an RS-25 rocket engine. Even weeks later, I think about the event in awe and wonder. The A-1 test stand to which the engine was mounted is impossibly large. The B-2 test stand, which will eventually test an array of four RS-25s, is larger even still. The engine test itself was like experiencing what I can only describe as a peaceful apocalypse. The sound and reverberations and billowing clouds had the all the terrible power and spectacle of what I imagine the end of the world to be like, but there, at NASA Stennis Space Center, the force was put toward the cause of peace and the betterment of humankind. I'm not given to mawkishness about such things, but all I could think the whole time was: If we can do this, we can do anything. The only other time I've ever felt that way was visiting the Great Wall of China—another impossible human achievement of breathtaking size, scope, and engineering genius. I feel fortunate to have seen two such wonders in a single lifetime.

I wrote a little about the test for Mental Floss:

It was magnificent. The engine was like an inverted volcano. White clouds billowed forth at 13 times the speed of sound, blasting so forcefully that even its component water vapor seemed confused and alarmed. The sound was like a sustained, rolling thunder that you could feel in your teeth, and its timbre dominated even your pulse. The experience was truly awesome in force and effect. The power and fury of the test was terrifying—and yet the RS-25 is perhaps the most peaceful product of the space age thus far. It's not a weapon of war. It powers no ballistic missiles, nuclear or otherwise. It exists only for exploration and the betterment of humankind.

Read the rest here.

I've embedded a video below. It doesn't come close to capturing the thing. The clouds you see billowing from the engine test stand are made of water vapor. The RS-25 burns liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen; the engine leaves behind an Earth as clean as it found it.

// Image credit at the top of this post: Aerojet Rocketdyne.