Lockheed Martin is working in New Orleans on parts for the Dream Chaser, a mini-shuttle designed to take NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
That's among a number of space-related projects underway at the Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans, where about 5,000 people built space shuttle fuel tanks in the 1980s. NASA retired the shuttles in 2011; Lockheed Martin Corp. built the last fuel tank in 2010.
"It's great to see the lights back on," Jim Crocker, vice president of Lockheed Martin's Space Systems Co., said Tuesday.
The Bethesda, Md.-based company is working for Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., one of three aerospace companies picked in 2012 to build small spacecraft to take astronauts to the space station.
Louisiana is among 30 states with Dream Catcher contracts, Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems, said during a news conference. He said workers at Michoud will build composite structures for the craft, which is scheduled for an unmanned test orbital launch Nov. 1, 2016.
"About nine months later, we'll have its first crewed demonstration," Sirangelo said.
Lockheed Martin will make the wings, rudder and internal braces, said Robert Biggs, the company's program manager for structural fabrication. He said about 15 people are working on the project. He doesn't expect more in April, when officials said the plant will get tools to make some more complicated parts.
Sierra Nevada's design, which could be flown without a pilot, is based on an old NASA test ship design. It looks like a baby version of the retired space shuttle, but its stubby wings are angled upward.
The Dream Chaser is 30 feet from nose to tail and from wingtip to wingtip; its outline could fit on a shuttle's wing with room to spare.
Still, its seven-person cabin is about as big as the shuttle's, Sirangelo said.
"The shuttle is like a moving van," he said, with a small cabin and big cargo area. Now that the space station is built, "you don't need a moving van. You need an SUV."
Like an SUV, he said, the cabin has seats that can be folded down to create cargo space.
He envisions a fleet of Dream Chasers, with possible uses to include serving as space laboratories and carrying people or robots up to fix satellites.
The other two companies competing for NASA ferry contracts are the Boeing Co. of Houston and Space Exploration Technologies, called SpaceX, of Hawthorne, Calif. Both are building capsules like those of the Apollo era, rather than shuttles.
"We are the only space-plane version," Sirangelo said.
"We're huge fans of the capsule" for deep space exploration to the moon and beyond, he said.
Boeing is getting $460 million, SpaceX $440 million and Sierra Nevada $212.5 million from NASA to develop the crafts.
Private companies already are shipping cargo to the space station. NASA is paying Russia about $63 million per launch to transport its astronauts.
Work at Michoud was investigated after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in 2003. The investigation did not find fault with the workers in New Orleans. It blamed the culture inside NASA, including engineers who had come to accept the idea that insulating foam flying off the shuttle was not a danger.
Lockheed Martin, which built more than 100 external tanks for the shuttle at Michoud, announced about a year ago that it would be building 88-foot-long tanks there for liquefied natural gas storage and transportation.
It is also building Orion crew capsules for flights that NASA hopes to send someday to an asteroid and Mars.
Crocker said the Dream Chaser contract won't increase Lockheed Martin's workforce at Michoud but will keep employees there between peaks in the Orion work.
Boeing is also at Michoud, designing and developing components of the rocket planned to carry the Orion capsule.