As the Apollo Program that carried humans to the moon and back began to wind down in the early 1970s, the fate of what now is known as NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center hung in the balance.
At the time, the site was called the Mississippi Test Facility. It was not an independent NASA center but operated under the guidance of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The Mississippi site was less than a decade old, having been built in a rush of activity to test the massive Saturn booster rockets that were used in the Apollo Program. Engineers had conducted the first test of a Saturn booster on April 23, 1966. A little more than four years later – October 30, 1970 – the last Saturn booster test was conducted at the site.
During those brief years, Mississippi Test Facility leaders had assembled a tremendous team of engineers and workers. From the ground up, against the toughest of conditions and deadlines, that team built a test site in amazing fashion out of woodland and swamp. It was a team that had shouldered a great responsibility in the nation's fledgling space program – testing and proving the rockets that would carry America's astronauts, as well as the country's hopes and dreams, to the moon. It was a team that had succeeded beyond all expectations, performing 43 test firings with only five aborts and accumulating a total of 2,475 man-years of rocket test experience. Along the way, there never was a test delayed due to lack of support services. In other words, the engineers and workers at the Mississippi Test Facility knew how to do their jobs and they did them well.
With the last test firing on the next-to-last day of October 1970, the test stands at Stennis grew quiet. Many believed they never would be used again.
However, another American space program already was in the works – development of a reusable flight vehicle that would come to be known as the space shuttle. That meant additional testing would be needed on a new type of engine. But besides the Mississippi Test Facility, two other sites around the country also were vying to test the new engine.
Mississippi Test Facility leaders made a case for using their site for the testing, and others reinforced the idea. One outside study of the sites vying for the test assignment gave the Mississippi Test Facility nine "value points," twice as many as any other site.
On March 1, 1971, the announcement finally was made. The Mississippi Test Facility would be responsible for testing and proving the space shuttle engines. "Many believe the decision to bring the shuttle program to the Mississippi Test Facility … was the most crucial single event in the center's entire history," one NASA historian wrote.
It is hard to dispute such a conclusion. By assuming responsibility for the space shuttle main engine testing, Mississippi Test Facility leaders took a major step toward realizing their vision – to build a facility that various federal and state agencies could share, thus turning a single-mission, space-dedicated, production-type facility into a multi-mission, space and environmental research-dedicated, production and development-type facility.
The cry was for "full utilization," a goal that would take time. The space shuttle assignment bought leaders the time they needed to attract other agencies to the facility, and to nurture their multi-faceted vision.
It also gave Mississippi Test Facility workers and engineers a chance to prove their excellence all over again. And prove it they did.
For the Mississippi workers, the space shuttle mission was very different from their Apollo assignment. The shuttle really was an amazing concept – a craft that could be launched into space, return to Earth and be used again. In addition, it would be powered by the most sophisticated and efficient rocket engine ever built.
In fact, it would use a unique engine design for launch, employing three liquid fueled engines and two solid rocket boosters. The three main engines were critical. After the solid rocket boosters had provided the initial punch, those engines rocketed the craft on its remaining journey to orbit. The key question that Mississippi Test Facility workers had to answer was could the engines do the job?
Engineers and other workers set about the task of proving they could. They completed necessary modifications to convert the Apollo-era test stands. Then, they began testing.
The first test of a single Space Shuttle Main Engine came in June 1975. By that time, the Mississippi facility had been renamed the National Space Technology Laboratories and made an independent NASA center.
In April 1978, the newest NASA center conducted its first three-engine test of the space shuttle propulsion system, an accomplishment many call the facility's "finest hour." By February 1981, the Mississippi teams had conducted test after test after test, and the final result was declared "a complete success." The space shuttle was ready to fly – and the nation was ready to watch.
Robert Crippen was one of two astronauts making that maiden voyage aboard the space shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981. He remembers the force of the flight, being hurtled into space by a trio of engines generating more than 37 million horsepower and releasing as much energy as three Hoover Dams. "We (went) from sitting still on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center to traveling at 17,500 miles an hour in … eight and a half minutes," he said later. "It is still mind-boggling to me."
The launch and mission were a success, and when they returned, Crippen and fellow astronaut John Young soon visited the engineers and workers at the Mississippi facility. "You… made it possible for us to sit back and ride," Crippen told the engineers and workers. "We couldn't even make it look hard."
Of course, the story did not end there. Indeed, it continues. To date, more than 100 shuttle missions have followed that first Columbia flight. There have been two tragedies that continue to be mourned, but no mission has failed because of the engines tested and proven flight worthy at what is now known as the John C. Stennis Space Center. Indeed, with engine testing following the shuttle tragedies, Stennis workers helped NASA regain its pride and return to space, surer, safer, and stronger.
And now, with the nation planning a return to the moon, with possible journeys beyond, NASA once again has turned to Stennis to test the rocket engines that will be needed.
This time, there is no need to make a case for the choice. Indeed, there is no question at all that NASA's premier rocket engine test facility in South Mississippi will do the job.
For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/
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