Leasing space on Earth stretches space exploration dollars - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Leasing space on Earth stretches space exploration dollars

The MSFC is transforming existing space under the RECAP Reinvestment Program. (Source: WAFF) The MSFC is transforming existing space under the RECAP Reinvestment Program. (Source: WAFF)

Deep space takes deep pockets.

But money is tight for our national program, with only so much available to fund the future of human space flight.

So, how to you make a finite amount of money go further?

Like so many advances in space exploration technology, you get creative.

Three years ago, when there were no more shuttles to launch and land at the Kennedy Space Center, life as they knew it there died.

It was virtually a ghost town. Unemployment was high, morale low, and much of the 219-square mile space complex sat empty.

NASA had real estate here, as well as at other centers that needed special occupants. They also had a new diverging rocket program that needed funding. 

Michoud Assembly Facility outside New Orleans, Louisiana was in the same boat.

The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville manages Michoud. It's 832 acres, made up of more than 35 buildings, 500,000 square feet of office and warehouse space. The Saturn V rockets were assembled here during the 60s and 70s. The Space Shuttle tanks were manufactured here for 30 years in the 80s, 90s and 2000s.

When there were no more tanks to push out, it looked like M-A-F was D-O-N-E. 

But then along came commercial space opportunities, and expanding science and technology companies. They needed unique equipment and space that NASA could offer. 

So NASA revved up the unique idea to turn the Agency into agents of change - making them land proprietors, creating a steady income.

"At Michoud, there is a giant factory I can't demolish, so a way to reduce costs is to get multiple users here," explained Patrick Scheuermann, MSFC Director.

"We are renting off large spaces of Michoud to offset the operating costs," said Todd May, SLS project manager for the Space Launch Alliance. "You'll see everything in there from companies like Sierra Nevada, who are doing commercial crew, to Lockheed Martin, doing commercial liquid natural gas containers."

And with the Big Easy home to stars like Angelina and Brad, Nicolas Cage, and Sandra Bullock, is it any surprise that Hollywood came calling?

"The Big Easy has made five or so movies down there," said May.

Michoud is now also home to a tenant you might not expect.

"Blade Dynamics, that makes big wind turbines that you see out in the ocean... It all helps us offset our operating costs," said May.

"The more folks who use that capability that has been bought and paid for by the taxpayers, it lowers our costs as well... It is a great income source," Scheuermann said.

The Space Launch System rocket that will take humans to deep space is being manufactured at Michoud for the MSFC. Marshall has been looking at it's own real estate situation and examining ways to offset costs of this SLS. 

Problem is, MSFC is a tenant of Redstone Arsenal, and restricted to what it can and can't do with the land it's occupied for nearly 55 years. Marshall is not leasing out space like Michoud, but rather changing the space it has - under what's called the RECAP Reinvestment Program.

"Our master plan has actually transformed the MSFC footprint from 1.2 million square feet of plant space that we inherited in the 1940s from RSA," said Scheuermann. "We've almost demolished that amount and in turn made new buildings come up that are way more efficient than those buildings that were really big users of electricity and maintenance dollars. We can't build a building unless we tear something down."

Scheuermann says that's a double win: to get rid of vintage in favor of something viable, useful, green.

"If we can invest dollars in the institution and the facilities and labs to make it more modern, every dollar we save on the institution is a dollar that I free up to invest in the program," he said.

With barrel sections of the SLS Pathfinder fresh off the tooling line at Michoud, and an engine on the stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi ready to be tested next week, production of this rocket is pushing forward... with funding, coming in part, from real estate.

And when Scheuermann looks out from his perch everyday over the vast and historic center, what he describes is the future - both of space exploration and the Rocket City developing it.

"I can see progress," he said, "either in the process of coming down or a skyline that's changing because new test stands are being built on old test stands that we demolished because we didn't need them anymore.When you sit where I'm sitting, you sort of lose it sometimes, but all you need to do is stand up and look out and you can see the smoke rising. Literally, progress. Of smoke and fire. It's good stuff."

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