Bill Capo / Eyewitness News
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NEWORLEANS-- The 27-feet wide ring of silvery metal is one of the first parts of the new Space Launch System rocket that is being built at the Michoud Assembly Facility.

'Bill, this is flight hardware,' said Boeing Vice President and Space Launch System Manager Virginia Barnes. 'This is it, this is the real stuff, this is hardware that is going into deep space. That hasn't happened in a long, long time.'

The Space Launch System rocket is designed to boost the new Orion capsule to send astronauts to other planets.

Boeing just signed a 10-year contract with NASA to build the 200-feet tall rocket core.

'What is it like to sign a $2.8 billion contract? It is making history, so signing a $2.8 billion contract is a momentous occasion,' said Barnes.

Three hundred people are building the rocket using high-tech equipment.

'I'm very thrilled to be here, this is a dream for me,' said Space Launch System Manufacturing Engineer James Randolph.

'At the end of the day, we're probably going to have 450 people working down here,' said NASA's John Honeycut.

NASA Deputy Program Manager John Honeycut showed the 170-feet tall welding machine used to assemble the huge rocket.

'This tool is the biggest of its kind in the world, and it's going to build the rocket that takes America where we've never been before,' said Honeycut. Boeing has a long history at Michoud. In the 1960s, they built the huge Saturn 5 booster to take Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Now they're building the Space Launch System, the stepping stone to Mars.

'We're building it here, because this is where you build deep space rockets,' said Barnes.

'It's probably the coolest job in the world, period,' grinned Space Launch System Fabrication Specialist Chris Slaughter.

The rocket now under construction is scheduled for the first launch in 2017.

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