NASA's Stennis Space Center is turning 50 this year, and one longtime employee is celebrating the occasion by not retiring.
Jeanne Kellar of Nicholson recently marked her 45th anniversary of employment at the south Mississippi rocket engine test facility. Employed now by Erica Lane Enterprises as part of the Facility Operating Services Contract Group, Kellar has spent her entire Stennis career with the site's Central Engineering Files, the repository of all Stennis Space Center blueprints and engineering drawings. Though she reached the age of retirement eligibility several years ago, "I don't plan to retire any time soon," she says. "I enjoy my work, I'm very proud of what we do here, and I want to see America go back into space."
Enthusiasm for America's space agency and connections to the Mississippi test facility are a Kellar family affair. Four of her six children now work at Stennis, but each has worked at the center at one time or another. Her late husband Absalom Alexander Kellar had been a Santa Rosa resident. His extended family was among the 660 families in five communities who gave up homes and land to make way for the center's construction in the 1960s.
"My husband's grandfather donated the land for Turtleskin Cemetery," Kellar says. The cemetery is located just outside Stennis' north entrance gate on Mississippi Hwy. 607.
Kellar and four family members recently sat down for a conversation with NASA's History Office to share memories of the test site's early days and what it was like to "be raised with the space program."
Kellar's oldest son, Clay, is an environmental systems operator with Jacobs Technology's FOSC Group. He remembers playing in the yard one day in 1969 when his mother called him inside and sat him in front of the black-and-white television to watch two American astronauts walk on the moon. "Mom was jumping up and down for joy, saying, 'That's what we do at the test site. That's what we do!'"
Daughter Susan Kellar Fendley is an electrical engineer for Lockheed-Martin's Test Operations Contract Group. She works at Stennis' E Test Complex, which supports NASA and commercial projects through testing of developmental components to full-scale engines. The E Complex specializes in using ultra high-pressure gases and high-pressure, super-cold fluids. Fendley has worked off-and-on at Stennis since 1981, and is now involved in testing the Aerojet AJ26 engine. "To be involved at the start of a program until the engine actually fires is a great thing," she says. "It really gives you a sense of accomplishment."
Son Steven performs similar work for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne's RS-68 engine program. He began work at the NASA installation in 1987, but still shivers slightly when recalling his first day on the job. "I saw my first space shuttle main engine test," he says. "It was so powerful, it almost seemed to me the test stand was going to blow up. It was amazing. It still amazes me."
Though her work is far removed from the rocket engine test complex, daughter-in-law Rhonda shares the family's passion for Stennis' place in their community and family. She has worked at the Department of the Navy since 1998, when "Miss Jeanne told me about the opportunities out here."
"I pushed all my kids to work here," Kellar says. "I knew it was an opportunity for a career that would let them stay close to home."
It's what Sen. John C. Stennis, the center's namesake, envisioned when he championed locating the site in south Mississippi. Jeanne Kellar remembers reading an article in the Picayune newspaper about a promise made by the longtime Mississippi legislator to the residents of Hancock County: they, their children and their grandchildren would always have a place to work; they wouldn't have to move far away to seek opportunities.
His promise has been fulfilled in the Kellar family. "I was 32 when I came to work here," Kellar says. "This job has fulfilled every dream for me. I've never looked back. I've loved working here, and I still want to see Stennis advance. The multiagency concept will keep Stennis growing. I believe it's the American future."
"My mother inspired me to work here," Clay Kellar adds. "The talk around the supper table was always all about Stennis." Even now at family gatherings, discussions inevitably turn to work and what's going on at Stennis, he says.
Fendley laughs, pointing out her mother's passion for her work runs so deep that she has already bought and designed her headstone – with the outline of a space shuttle inscribed on it. "It's been the center of her life," she adds more seriously.
"She's not kidding," Kellar affirms. "That's how dedicated I am to the space program."
Kellar's enthusiasm has spilled over into the lives of her great-grandchildren. "My 10-year-old granddaughter tells me she wants to be an engineer and work where I work," son Steve says. "Maybe one day she'll take my place."
- end -