University of New Orleans alumnus Lionel Dutreix likens his job to that of a mayor of a small city. His “city,” however, is unlike any other in that its focus really is rocket science. Or, perhaps, the science of rockets.
Dutreix is the director of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, dubbed “America’s Rocket Factory,” as for over five decades it has been the premier site for manufacturing and assembling of large-scale space structures and systems.
In fact, contractors at Michoud are currently at work helping to construct large parts of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft that is set to return astronauts to the moon in 2025 under NASA’s Artemis program.
NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, is a “super heavy-lift launch vehicle that provides the foundation for human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. With its unprecedented power and capabilities, SLS is the only rocket that can send Orion, astronauts and cargo directly to the Moon on a single mission,” according to NASA officials.
On a stroll through his nearly 830-acre town, Dutreix, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineer, is privileged to witness the storied history of space exploration.
Workers at Michoud are building the 212-feet tall core stage of the Space Launch System, which is the largest part of the 322-foot-tall rocket.
“Just seeing the flight hardware and knowing that will take individuals back to the moon and on to Mars—it’s pretty cool,” Dutreix said. “We’re building a pretty sizeable portion of it right here.”
According to NASA officials, the Artemis program involves a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. Artemis I launched last year with the unmanned Orion spacecraft—portions of which also were assembled at Michoud.
Next year, Artemis II’s mission will launch four astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft that will orbit the moon. NASA has targeted 2025 as the next lunar landing date. It will be the U.S.’s first moon landing since Apollo 17 in 1972, according to NASA.
Dutreix became Michoud’s director in 2021 and manages the daily operations of the site, which has 20 tenants. NASA is the anchor tenant, while several others hold contracts with the space program.
“We have a veritable community out here. We have the prime contractors that build the NASA flight hardware and the rocket; we have other industry out here that makes for a really good mix on-site,” Dutreix said. “As the director, I’m responsible for the whole facility, starting at the secure perimeter and everything in the facility.”
Those duties include oversight of the on-site fire department, security team, maintenance of green space and growth of the facility’s tenant base, he said.
“The more tenants we have, the less it costs us to operate,” he said.
As the “mayor”, Dutreix has an enviable courtside seat as NASA administrators plan a course for space exploration that will extend over the next 20 to 25 years. It’s a seat that Dutreix has worked decades to acquire.
In 1987 Dutreix had a job interview with Rocketdyne, which was located at Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Dutreix, a newly minted UNO graduate, was not familiar with Stennis.
There was a space shuttle engine test the day of his interview, Dutreix said.
“You could feel the vibrations of the rocket and I was like ‘This is for me!’”
NASA was in the middle of its Space Shuttle program and there was a lot of testing at Stennis, Dutreix recalled.
“I learned a lot,” Dutreix said. “I’d hang out with the technicians and they might not know the theory, but they knew how to make it work. I just sponged all of that up.”
In 2000, Dutreix was hired by NASA to be the chief test operations and electrical branch chief for the Engineering and Test Directorate at Stennis. He later became the project manager for the design, construction and activation of a new Altitude Test Facility at Stennis.
“What attracted me to that was the opportunity to start making decisions as to what was going to happen,” he said. “As a contractor, you’re executing the contracts of the mission that NASA is doing today. When you move into NASA, you get a little bit more into what are the new missions.”
In 2017, Dutreix was named the deputy chief operating officer at Michoud where he helped sustain SLS and Orion production efforts and coordinated requirements and logistics with Michoud tenant leadership for approximately 3,500 Michoud employees.
As the Michoud director, Dutreix is privy to some logistics meetings involving space exploration and the potential for colonizing the moon—and possibly Mars.
“How do you live on the moon … how do you grow food on the moon?” Those are some of the questions that are discussed, Dutreix said. Also, possible housing options and the how-to’s of transporting tents into space.
“You’re going to have to bring some stuff up, and they are learning to do a lot of that on the Space Station.”
Asked to name his favorite interstellar-themed movie, Dutreix rounds down and discards a few—“The Right Stuff,” “Alien,” “Apollo”—before landing on “The Martian.”
While many such movies might be deemed far-out, that film, which stars actor Matt Damon as a botanist, underscores the reality of the current space program and one of its goals: How to live long-term in space, Dutreix said.
In talking with younger employees and students, Dutreix said he tries to emphasize the historical nature of the work happening at Michoud.
He shares with them about his early days at Stennis and how he would hear stories about the Apollo missions from some of the older workers.
“I say, ‘You’re at the beginning of the next generation of programs that I didn’t really experience,’” said Dutreix, who explains that the shuttle program was already underway when he joined Stennis in the late 80s. “Apollo was before me and shuttle was already matured.”
Artemis is “their Apollo,” Dutreix said.
“It’s kind of cool to think that when they get to be my age they can say ‘Yeah, I was there when we built the first one and launched it; and now we’re on Mars!’’’