MIChoud, La.—Clearly, NASA’s new plans for its Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule require state-of-the-art tools and engineering. But all those strategies, machines and flight hardware don’t come out of the blue. While much of NASA’s work is built, so to speak, on the shoulders of giants, they also find partners to continuously conduct essential research and development.
At the Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans, that means NCAM. The National Center for Advanced Manufacturing is a research-focused partnership between NASA, the state of Louisiana, and local colleges and universities such as LSU and the University of New Orleans. Essentially, NCAM is close to the get started of the facility’s SLS and Orion workflow. After all, before the most advanced tools at Michoud can be used and the best engineered materials can be implemented in NASA hardware, someone has to think. Since 1999, this has been NCAM’s role: to invent, research and develop various tools and materials to help NASA continually improve its work (including SLS and Orion).
“All emerging technology goes through the academic research process before appearing in industry,” said John Vickers, NCAM manager and deputy director of the materials and processes laboratory at the Marshall Space Flight Center. “These machines are building products that will be on the Orion spacecraft to go to the moon, to Mars and beyond.”
When it comes to focus, NCAM is almost given free rein. Their work can focus on everything from flight hardware to test processes to fabrication tools (they’ve even researched Michoud’s famous friction stir welding in the past). Vickers was in Michoud when Ars visited in late 2015, and he showed off NCAM’s work, particularly with the site’s Automated Fiber Placement Machines. These are massive (chamber-sized, with a maximum mandrel capacity of over 40,000 lbs) fabrication tools that take a layer-by-layer approach to building composite structures. Like other great tools at Michoud, they work very precisely, so the output is infinitely reliable.
“The final goal [for our composites] is 50 percent lighter than the metal equivalent,” Vickers said. “That’s significant added value for our reconnaissance missions. It means we can send much, much more cargo into space.”
The composites that Vickers showed (seen in the video above) will eventually find their way into the Orion modules. He noted that launchers today are largely aluminum, but NCAM and NASA have watched closely as composites emerged in other aircraft, in the defense market, and now slowly in the aerospace industry. Compared to Apollo modules, such composites allow Orion to have a much lighter skeleton. So while the Orion EM-2 crew module is expected to have a launch weight of 22,900 lbm (compared to 12,392 lbm for the Apollo 8 CSM), much of that added mass will come from system redundancies that will better prepare the module for both deep space exploration and contingencies. Troubleshooting. Those precautions wouldn’t be possible without NCAM’s work improving the module (not to mention the group’s efforts focused on the engine components that can lift these increased weights).
Perhaps best of all, NCAM’s academic mindset works both ways. The group not only examines current practices to improve efficiency, but also wants to train the next generation to continue this work. By partnering with LSU and UNO, NCAM is able to train the next generation of engineers and manufacturing specialists. UNO is one of the few universities where an engineering student not only reads about friction stir welding, but has the opportunity to observe the technique at a scale and level of accuracy unmatched anywhere else in the world. NCAM believes so strongly in recruiting and training future NASA employees, they even extend their reach to the reconnaissance level, teaming up with local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts based on merit badges.
“I have been with NCAM for over 15 years now and I will see students come through the education system and emerge into the workforce here,” said Vickers. “Sometimes it’s to my surprise, but it’s always a great pleasure.”
This video is the final in our four-part series on the Michoud Assembly Facility and how NASA’s grand ambitions there are being fulfilled today.
Frame image by Jennifer Hahn