Ender’s Game filmed at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility

But truth is even more amazing than fiction. Economic impact, REAL space technology, and heroism during Katrina are the real stories.

Ender's GameNASA Michoud Assembly Facility

by Jim Cheng

NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans manufactured the gigantic orange fuel tank for the shuttle, and will soon be source of the largest components of NASA’s 21st century space exploration mission. It’s fantastic to think of the upcoming sci-fi movie “Ender’s Game” being filmed there.

Not so much because of the glamour that folks like Harrison Ford and Viola Davis bring, but because of the economic impact that the film industry is having on New Orleans—an estimated $531 million in 2011. In the course of our work on the MAF master plan, Alan, Chad and I saw firsthand the legacy of the devastation. It’s great to see NASA being true to one of its primary stated goals: to supplement its major economic role in the region by optimizing use of the facility in ways that also benefit the community.

It’s no wonder the film company chose Building 103 at MAF. It’s one of the largest continuous enclosed spaces in the world—43 acres under a single roof. When we would enter the building, we’d leave behind a heavy industrial site still scarred by the storm and step into a vast, pristine interior. We were often passed by bicycles moving from one part of the building to another. We were asked not to touch anything to avoid depositing oils from our fingerprints…onto objects the size of buildings.

“Ender’s Game” is apparently about youngsters training for interstellar battle. But no matter how amazing the special effects, it’s just a movie, and the battles simulated. In August of 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with wind speeds of up to 178 mph. MAF is located at the intersection of the Intracostal Waterway and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which faced the early brunt of Katrina. A group of committed MAF engineers and facilities staff knew that if the pumps and generators failed, the entire space shuttle program–and the International Space Station which depended on it–could be shut down indefinitely. They elected to stay to make sure things kept running, even though parts of MAF are below sea level, not to mention flood level. Never had the berms surrounding the facility been tested at this level.

One of the lead engineers in our master planning effort, Ernie Graham, never mentioned his role in the storm, or the fact that he was awarded one of NASA’s highest honors, the Exceptional Bravery Medal. We were told by another engineer.

So if I see the movie, my mind may drift to things even more amazing—because they’re real.

>> read more about Ender’s Game at MAF

>> read about the economic impact of film industry in New Orleans

>> read a brief account of MAF and Katrina