Stennis Space Center

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[top] History

[top] Location and Land Area

The Stennis Space Center is located approximately 45 miles east of New Orleans, along the East Pearl River in Hancock County, MS. The center is made up of a 13,800 acre “fee area,” which houses the center facilities, surrounded by a 125,071 acre acoustic buffer zone extending approximately six miles from the fee area in all directions. Much of this acoustic buffer zone was acquired by perpetual easement rather than actual purchase. A 1961 map shows the location of the test facility and buffer zone.

[top] Facility Development

Construction, 1963
Dredging of Canal, 1961

In 1961, following President John F. Kennedy’s historic announcement of the goal to land a man on the moon within the decade, NASA moved rapidly to provide facilities capable of manufacturing, testing, controlling, and launching giant space vehicles. At the time, NASA had no facility adequate for the testing of rockets on this scale. Several locations were considered, with the decision ultimately falling on a sparsely populated tract of land along the Pearl River in southern Mississippi. This decision grew out of the location’s proximity to the Michoud Assembly Facility, which would be constructing the engines, Cape Canaveral, which would be the launch facility, water access to allow transportation of the huge engines, isolation from population centers, proximity to support communities, and a climate allowing year-round testing.

Land acquisition began in 1962, and involved the relocation of the residents of several towns, including Gainesville within the actual fee area, and Logtown, Napoleon, Santa Rosa, Westonia, and Dillville within the buffer zone. There were also several smaller communities surrounding these towns such as The Point, a small African-American community situated just north of Logtown. Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi, a staunch supporter of the space program, was instrumental in easing tensions during this period and in helping area residents to make the transition, and in a 1961 speech at Logtown urged residents that, by being involved in the creation of the new NASA facility, they would be “taking part in greatness.”

[top] Initial Activities

First flag raising, 1962
An S-II booster raised on to the A-2 Test Stand

The south Mississippi facility was in its early years variously called both Mississippi Test Operations (MTO) and the Mississippi Test Facility (MTF), and was administered by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The center’s purpose was to test and flight-certify the first two stages of the Saturn V, the booster system for the Apollo program, called the S-IC and the S-II respectively. In order to make this possible, 15 miles of the East Pearl river had to be dredged to connect the test site to the Intercoastal Waterway, 7.5 miles of canals had to be dug on the test site itself, including a massive set of locks, and three test stands had to be constructed (two for testing the S-II stage, called A-1 and A-2, and a dual-position stand for the S-IC stage, called B-1/B-2), along with about 20 support and service buildings. A series of specialized ships, barges, and floating fuel tanks, including the unique towboat Clermont, were also constructed to support the facility.

The first static test at the Mississippi facility was performed on April 23, 1966 on a Saturn V second stage prototype (the S-II-T) mounted on the A-2 test stand. This marked the beginning of testing for the Apollo program, which continued into the early 1970s. For the entire duration of the Apollo missions, the booster systems tested at the Mississippi facility operated without a single failure.

[top] After Apollo

It was recognized as early as 1966 that NASA had no plans for the facility beyond the Apollo program, which was a subject of great concern for then-director Jackson Balch and Senator Stennis, both of whom subsequently pursued further programs for the site in the name of “full utilization” of the expensive facility.

The location of the facility with easy water access to the Gulf of Mexico made oceanography a natural possibility, and Balch encouraged non-NASA organizations to consider locating facilities and projects there. These efforts first bore fruit in 1968, when the Environmental Science Services Administration contracted with the facility to provide a data management system for the Barbados Oceanographic and Meteorological Experiment (BOMEX). Thanks in large part to funds secured by powerful southern politicians for developing Earth environmental studies at the center, other agencies began to locate at the facility, beginning with the Coast Guard’s National Data Buoy Project in 1970, followed by the Earth Resources Laboratory (a center for remote sensing and applications research), and the Bureau of Marine Fisheries later the same year. The next several years saw the arrival of many more “resident agencies,” including NOAA, Mississippi State University, Louisiana State University, USGS, the Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS), and several others.

SSME test

In 1971, it was announced that the Mississippi facility had been chosen to perform engine testing for the new Space Shuttle program. This news brought great relief to the center administration, because it meant that the test stands could expect to see use for the foreseeable future because the shuttle program had no fixed end date. This was a major step towards perpetual “full utilization” of the facility. The center tested and flight-certified all space shuttle main engines (SSME) used for the full duration of the shuttle program, and no engine tested at the center was ever the cause of a failed mission.

The same year also saw the decision to locate the Mississippi Army Ammunition Plant in the northern part of the fee area, a huge manufacturing facility which was dedicated to the production of a modern 155-mm artillery round. It was completed in 1983.

In 1974, under political encouragement to make the Mississippi facility an autonomously operating NASA center (it was still administrated by the Marshall Space Flight Center), NASA announced that the facility was now the National Space Technology Laboratories (NSTL). This alteration made the facility an equal partner with other NASA centers, reporting directly to Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The years 1975-76 saw the move to the center of its largest resident agency to date, the Naval Oceanographic Program, which brought about 1,200 scientists, technicians, and military personnel to the center. The facility has continued to attract “resident agencies” engaged in both in space and environmental research and today is host to over 30 such organizations.

In 1985, the State of Mississippi funded the construction of the Technology Transfer Center, which was intended to enable Mississippi citizens to benefit more directly from technology developed by NASA and its resident agencies. This was considered a “bold move” for a relatively underdeveloped state like Mississippi, and still represents one of very few facilities of its kind.

[top] The Stennis Space Center

John C. Stennis

By order of President Ronald Reagan, the NSTL was renamed the John C. Stennis Space Center in 1988, in recognition of the unwavering support which the senator had given the center since its earliest days and his “visionary leadership” to ensure the success of the space program. This redesignation further represented recognition of the facility as a full member in the “eminent family” of NASA research and spaceflight organizations. This recognition culminated with the designation of the facility in 1991 as NASA’s Center of Excellence for Testing Large Propulsion Systems.

The 1990s saw the construction of several new facilities at SSC, including the Diagnostic Testbed Facility and the E Test Complex, and 2002 saw the opening of the Lockheed Martin Mississippi Space and Technology Center, the Naval Small Craft Instructional and Technical Training School and Special Boat Unit 22, and the Naval Oceanographic Warfighting Support and Survey Operations Center.

In 2007, the announcement was made of the decision to build a new test stand at SSC, designed to test the J-2X engine developed to power the Ares I and Ares V rockets. The 300-foot tall A-3 test stand will allow engineers to simulate conditions at altitudes up to 100,000 feet. Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2012. As the shuttle program is phased out (the final scheduled SSME test occurred in 2009), the existing test stands are already performing work on the next generation of rocket engines. Once the A-3 stand is complete, Stennis will be the only facility in the country capable of testing these engines fully in simulated high-altitude conditions.

As NASA begins to work in closer partnership with the private sector, new engines for commercial enterprises will also be tested at SSC, including Orbital Sciences Corporation’s AJ26 Aerojet engine designed for the Taurus® II, which will provide commercial transport to the International Space Station.

A detailed chronology of the center is available.

For a more detailed history of the center, see Mack R. Herring’s book "Way Station to Space: A History of the John C. Stennis Space Center," from which much of the information given here was drawn.

[top] Descriptions of Historic Sites and Buildings

Please see links to individual pages with information, documents, photos, and other multimedia for various historic sites and buildings at Stennis Space Center.

[top] Films

Virtual Tour

Final Space Shuttle Main Engine Test

[top] Links

John C. Stennis Space Center home page

Stennis Image Retrieval System

Hancock County Historical Society

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