by Joey Kent, photos courtesy: NASA
ON THE FAR EASTERN EDGE of New Orleans where I-10 begins to curl upward toward Slidell sits an area still known as Michoud. Pronounced “Mee- Shoo” by the locals, the most renowned remains of the small 18th century village of some 34,500 acres named for sugar merchant Antoine Michoud is a sprawling government facility bearing the initials MAF (Michoud Assembly Facility), where some 4,000 workers create rockets and space ships for NASA. As our nation marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing this summer, I want to shine a spotlight on the place where the first Apollo rockets were assembled and New Orleans’ often unheralded role in the past and future of space exploration.
I was nine years old when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced around on the moon for the first time in July 1969. My father was Administrative Assistant to U.S. Congressman Joe D. Waggonner of Louisiana, who happened to be on the NASA oversight committee, so suffice it to say I had the coolest “Show & Tell” things to present at school. Whereas my classmates were showcasing ant farms and coin collections, I was offering up black and white images of Mars fresh from the recent flybys of the Mariner 7 deep space probe. I had my own government model of the Lunar Module and even got to get out of school to meet the Apollo 12 astronauts in person. Little Joey Kent, like most of the inhabitants of our planet, was captivated by the “Space Race” of the 1960s and glued to the television when Walter Cronkite confirmed Armstrong’s clipped audio that “the Eagle has landed.”
Let’s back up a bit.
Louisiana was still a colony of France when New Orleans merchant Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent received the parcel of land in question from the King of France in 1763, along with valuable trading rights in the territory. St. Maxent established a plantation on the swampy tract where sugar cane was grown, cypress trees harvested and plentiful muskrats trapped for their fur. Most notably, during this time, he sponsored a fur trader, Pierre Laclede, on an expedition to establish a trading post further up the Mississippi River. Laclede succeeded in his efforts, founding what would become the city of St. Louis on Valentine’s Day the following year.
Upon his passing in 1794, St. Maxent’s heirs sold his plantation at auction, and it passed ownership again in 1801, this time to New Orleans merchant, surveyor and part time “privateer” Barthelemy Lafon, who owned the tract until his death in 1820.
Lafon is best known to us today for his early maps of New Orleans and surrounding territory and for the Lower Garden district, where he designed and chose to name many of its streets after Greek muses: Clio, Calliope, Euterpe, Thalia and others. Coliseum Street was to lead to the sight of an actual coliseum and the park that remains, the sight of a public forum meeting place … but that’s another story.
Coming to America in 1790, Lafon soon established an iron foundry on the lower part of Canal Street and came to serve as the Chief Deputy Surveyor for Orleans Parish. He saw value in “privateering,” the capturing of merchant ships of one country while under license of another, and was known to keep company with the Laffite brothers and other noteworthy pirates … um, “privateers.” With foreign alliances constantly changing, it was hard for the early members of the Louisiana territory to keep up with all the Letters of Marque, as the permission slips to pillage were known, so the line between “privateer” and “pirate” was difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish.
As it relates to this story, upon Lafon’s passing in 1820, his heirs were faced with a number of lawsuits and other credit claims over various taxes and other debts overlooked during his latter years when he moved to Galveston to better serve alongside his buddies Jean and Pierre Laffite. Parcels of the original St. Maxent estate were given over to lesser creditors, but the bulk of the plantation was sold in 1827 to Antoine Michoud, who spent many of the ensuing years buying back the lost parcels.
Michoud immigrated to New Orleans soon after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. His father had been the emperor’s Administrator of Domains (think land parcels, not dot coms), so the dude hit town with a fair bankroll. He opened an art and antiques shop on Royal Street and, once established, used his connections to wade in deep into the commercial real estate market, where he quickly increased his fortune, which was said to have been in excess of $200,000 (just under $5 million in today’s dollars) when he died in 1862.
In 1910, the tract was sold again and, after a failed attempt to drain and develop the plantation, it eventually ended up in the hands of a New Orleans realtor with the impossibly long name of Roch Eugene Edgar de Montluzin du Sauzay. I’m calling him “Ed.” Ed continued leasing the marshlands for the trapping of muskrats and sold off timber for railroad crossties. Under his watch, the government was granted permission to build a 7.5-mile section of the Intracoastal Canal through the property, a development that would play a pivotal role in its eventual selection by NASA.
At the onset of World War II, a 1,000-acre tract of the plantation was chosen by the government as one of a handful of sites for the building of Liberty ships, the landing vessels designed by local boat builder Andrew Higgins that played a critical role in the D-Day operations. The government changed its mind several times during the war, however, instructing Higgins to first build the boats, then cargo planes, then nothing at all. The plant was formally closed at the end of the war and essentially put in mothballs by the government.
It should be noted that at the time the government consigned the complex to the War Assets Administration, the Michoud facility contained, among other structures, one of the largest manufacturing buildings under one roof in the country. Spanning 43 acres, the 1.8 million-square- foot behemoth had hardly been used and was an incredible diamond in the rough. To put this in modern perspective, it was the size of 7 Superdomes all under one roof.
In the early 1950s, Chrysler was awarded a $30 million contract to build tank engines for the Army, and the plant saw life for a few years, but was once again silent by mid-1953.
In 1955, German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the former head of Adolph Hitler’s V2 rocket program who was relocated to the United States along with 1,600 of his fellow scientists after the war as part of the secret “Operation Paperclip,” officially became a U.S. citizen. Soon after, von Braun became the first director of NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and led the U.S. team in the space race against the Soviets.
When the NASA facilities at Huntsville proved too small to handle the assembly and testing of the massive Saturn rocket boosters that would take us to the moon, it was von Braun who suggested the acquisition of the Michoud plant for the space program. Several states fought hard for the jobs and economic activity the factory would generate, but in the end, due in large part to the infrastructure already in place and the accessibility of Huntsville by water, the Michoud site was chosen in September 1961 and repairs initiated to bring it up to aerospace standards.
Chrysler once again set up shop there, sharing operations with Boeing, and over the next three years, vertical assembly and testing buildings were added. The first Saturn 1 rocket rolled off the line at Michoud in December 1963. Von Braun attended the ceremony marking this milestone and received the rocket for NASA, complimenting the Michoud plant: “You have converted this wreck of an industrial facility into one of the cleanest and nicest facilities in the space business anywhere.”
He praised the Michoud workers for their dedication to quality and reliability, saying the consistently positive test results reflected “not statistical tricks but an almost religious dedication and devotion to perfection by every member of the team.”
The boosters built at the Michoud Assembly Facility powered the rockets of the Apollo space program, including the one that first landed our astronauts on the moon some fifty years ago, leading the workers at the plant to proudly proclaim that man’s journey to the moon began in New Orleans.
During the first half of the 1970s, the facility was retooled to begin manufacturing the fuel tank for the Space Shuttle program. Standing over 150 feet tall, each tank weighed in at 1.5 million pounds and held over a million gallons of propellant. The first of these massive tanks left New Orleans in September 1977 for further testing at the nearby Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, eventually powering the shuttle Columbia on its maiden voyage in 1981.
As we brace for another push into space with the next round of human exploration, the folks out at MAF will continue to provide the power to get us there. Last December, the largest rocket fuel tank ever built rolled out of the Michoud plant as part of NASA’s Space Launch System, which will power the rockets to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
And still standing in front of the main offices at this NASA facility as ever-present reminders of the humble beginnings of the plantation are the twin smokestacks of the original sugar mill from more than 250 years ago.
“From muskrats to moon ships” is how the workers there sum up the property’s rich and diverse history. Fair enough, I’d say.
Read the story with more photos here: https://issuu.com/in_magazine/docs/1907isnsweb/34.