Boeing waits on NASA decision to boost Michoud work force

by Ben Myers, Staff Writer  Editor’s Note: The following story is part of a CityBusiness Public Companies special report, focusing on companies based in the New Orleans area or doing business in the region. 

The Boeing Co. is awaiting a decision from NASA that could more than double its work force at the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans.

The existing Michoud presence for Boeing, which is based in Chicago, is currently about 100 employees who are already working in support of NASA’s Space Launch System mandate. Congress authorized the SLS in 2010 to expand space exploration to new destinations, including Mars and asteroids, by 2016.

Boeing is hoping NASA will accept its proposal to build the booster rockets, known as cryogenic propulsive stages, for the new system. That would immediately ramp up production and hiring, said Jim Chilton, vice president of exploration launch services for the company.

“We’d probably get to twice where we are right away,” Chilton said, referring to Boeing’s employment level at Michoud.

The space travel news site, http://www.nasaspaceflight.com, reported on June 5 that a decision on the configuration of the new spacecraft for the SLS mandate is just weeks away. But NASA’s decision could be just as detrimental as it is promising for the local work force.

A configuration that doesn’t make use of Boeing’s current work would result in the company shutting down its entire Michoud operation. And even a decision favorable to Boeing won’t necessarily guarantee job security for its Michoud employees.

The SLS mandate is

controversial, with some questioning its overall viability. Author Mark Whittington, a Houston-based writer who’s covered NASA extensively, opined in an online news column last week that the SLS is “a rocket without a mission and without an adequate budget.”Still, Boeing seems upbeat, having scheduled a demonstration of technological developments at Michoud for reporters two weeks ago. Chilton said the company has been fully committed to the project.

“We have already invested double-digit millions of dollars of discretionary funds to enable this program,” he said.

Boeing’s proposal centers on what Chilton says is a unique application of friction stir welding, a technique that originated in Britain that NASA has used over the last 15 to 20 years. Boeing is deploying the technique in a fashion that maximizes cost efficiency at low production rates, Chilton said.

“Traditionally, you set up a manufacturing operation where you can … push a lot of output,” Chilton said. “When we talk about the exploration launch arena, we can’t always count on high rate.”

Taking into account all of its segments, Boeing showed a huge leap in profits in 2010, from $1.3 billion to $3.3 billion, despite a 5.9 percent dip in overall revenue. The company divisions comprise commercial airplanes, broadband service, capital shared services, research and development, and a defense segment that includes aerospace.

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