The Stennis Space Center
NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center has a rich history in space exploration. Established as Mississippi Test Operations in the early 1960s, the site was designed to test the engines for America’s first journeys to the moon aboard the Apollo Program spacecraft. The facility was renamed in 1988 for Mississippi Sen. John C. Stennis, who championed its construction in his home state.
Now the nation’s largest rocket engine testing facility, Stennis Space Center has tested all of the main engines for the space shuttle missions and is preparing to test the next generation of rocket engines that will carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit again. When President John F. Kennedy made his historic 1961 announcement that the United States would put humans on the moon by the end of that decade, a place was needed to test the powerful engines that would propel them on their journey.
For NASA officials, the rough terrain of Hancock County, Miss., provided the five things necessary to test the large Apollo engines: a site isolated from large population centers, water and road access for transportation needs, public utilities availability, nearby supporting communities and a climate conducive for year-round engine testing.
In May 1963, workers felled the first tree in a daunting construction project. The effort marked the largest construction project in the state of Mississippi and the second largest in the United States at that time.
Part of the Stennis Space Center buffer zone extends into St. Tammany
(Map Credit: http://portairspace.com/ )
At its peak during the summer of 1965, there were 6,100 workers on site, employed by 30 prime and 250 subprime contractors, all involved in construction of facilities and the trio of test stands for the Apollo Program’s Saturn V rocket engines. The massive, 200-foot-tall, steel-and-concrete test structures were built to last.
Able to withstand thrust loads of more than 1 million pounds and temperatures up to 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit, all three of the original test stands are still in use today. During those hectic early days of construction, workers also built a seven-and-one-half-mile canal system to connect the test stands to the Pearl River.
The canal system was needed for transporting the large Apollo stages from the nearby Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and on to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It still is used to deliver liquid propellants by barge to the test facility.Despite a pressing schedule, occasional setbacks and even the disruption of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, workers toiled day and night to prevail in their construction tasks.
On April 23, 1966, just three years after the first tree was felled and construction began, a Saturn V second stage prototype was test-fired on the A-2 Test Stand. With the shake, rattle and roar of the test, south Mississippi was blasted into the space age.
From 1967 until 1972, Stennis test-fired all first and second stages of the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo Program. Michoud Assembly Facility manufactured the large rocket stages. From that nearby New Orleans facility, the stages were barged to Stennis. After testing, the stages were transported by barge once more, this time across the Gulf of Mexico to Kennedy Space Center, Fla., where they were prepared for launch on Apollo missions.
The first test firing on April 23,1966, represented a “vital” milestone for the Apollo Program. Altogether, Stennis conducted 42 tests for the Apollo Program, including ones on all of the engines used on the program’s manned missions. The Apollo Program launched three unmanned and 12 manned missions with six actual lunar landings.
A dozen astronauts walked on the moon. The first lunar footprints were those of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969. The final steps on the moon were taken by Apollo 17 crewmembers Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan on Dec. 14, 1972. They – and their astronaut colleagues who joined the exclusive lunar club on other missions – all were safely transported 240,250 miles to the moon by engines proven flightworthy at Stennis.
For the next 34 years, Stennis and major contractor Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne would continue to test every engine used to power the shuttle into orbit. In that time, not a single mission failed because of engine malfunction.
The space shuttle was the first spacecraft able to carry large satellites into orbit and retrieve them. It can orbit Earth at altitudes as high as 330 miles on missions of seven to 16 days, carrying a crew of up to seven. Scientific experiments are conducted in the gravity-free environment. Studies conducted in the shuttle’s weightless environment enable research not possible on Earth. The shuttle has been part of exciting space projects. On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle transported and launched the Hubble Telescope into space, expanding human understanding of the universe.
Beginning in 1998, the shuttle began transporting the components to build the International Space Station, an inhabited, scientific laboratory orbiting 250 miles above Earth. Stennis also conducted extensive testing to return the space shuttle to safe flight after the losses of space shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.
In May 2007, NASA announced construction of a new test stand at Stennis Space Center to test the next-generation rocket engines that can return human beyond low-Earth orbit once more. Ground was broken on the project later that year, and work began on the A-3 Test Stand, the first large test-firing structure to be built on site since the 1960s. In April 2009, workers marked a major milestone with final assembly of 4 million pounds and 16 stages of fabricated structural steel on the test stand foundation.
The world's most efficient rocket engine came to life again on August 13, 2015, unleashing 512,000 pounds of thrust and a thunderous roar across southern Mississippi and NASA's Stennis Space Center during a 535-second full power test fire. The same engine that powered the space shuttle so reliably for years, the RS-25, will again be employed for NASA's Space Launch System, upgraded to meet the new requirements for what will become the most powerful rocket in history. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace
Since next-generation rockets are planned to travel beyond low-Earth orbit, they must be built to start in space. To test that capability, the new 300-foot-tall, open-steel-structure A-3 Test Stand will use a series of chemical steam generators to create simulated altitudes of up to 100,000 feet for testing engines.
Operators are able to conduct full-duration tests (the amount of time engines will have to fire during actual flights) on full-scale engines and to gimbal the engines (rotate them in the same way they must move during flight to ensure proper trajectory), all at simulated altitudes of up to 100,000 feet. No other stand in the country allows all three of those aspects at the same time.
The Stennis Space Center is also home to a number of federal, state and educational agencies. There is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, of course, and the NASA Shared Services Center, but facilities also include the Department of Defense Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, the Naval Oceanographic Office and the Naval Research Laboratory Detachment.
Also located at the Center are the Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School, the Special Boat Team Twenty-Two, U.S. Navy, Navy Human Resources (Service Center Southeast)and the Mississippi Army Ammunition Plant. Meanwhile, also on hand, is the Department of Energy Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the Department of Commerce National Data Buoy Center, the National Weather Service, the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, and the National Coastal Data Development Center.
The Department of the Interior has its U.S. Geological Survey Hydrologic Instrumentation Facility located there, and the Environmental Protection Agency has its Environmental Chemistry Laboratory on site as well as the Gulf of Mexico Program.
State-related agencies there include the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology and the Enterprise for Innovative Geospatial Solutions, as well as the State of Louisiana having its Louisiana Technology Transfer Office, and Louisiana Business & Technology Center/LSU.
Educational facilities are also maintained on site by the Mississippi's Center of Higher Learning, Mississippi State University, Pearl River Community College, the University of New Orleans, the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, the Northern Gulf Institute, and the University of Southern Mississippi College of Science & Technology's Department of Marine Science.
StenniSphere was located inside the gates of the Center
The Infinity Science Center is located just outside the gates, adjacent to the Mississippi Welcome Center on Interstate 10