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February 27, 2008

Paul Foerman, NASA News Chief
NASA Public Affairs Office
Stennis Space Center, MS 39529-6000
(228) 688-1880

Stennis Selection Ushers South Mississippi into the Space Age

In 1957, Americans, along with people across the globe, gazed at the heavens in amazement as the world's first artificial satellite, the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1, streaked across the sky. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to this perceived Cold War threat with the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. NASA was formed from the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, a group that had researched flight technology for more than 40 years.

President John F. Kennedy's May 25, 1961, speech to a special joint session of Congress set the pace for America's entry into the space race. He said, "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

The goal of landing astronauts on the moon required a place to test the large rocket engines that would propel them on that journey. Sen. John C. Stennis was a strong supporter and advocate of the American space program. He answered Pres. Kennedy's space exploration challenge by recommending the establishment of a rocket engine test facility in his home state of Mississippi. Just six months after Kennedy's speech, NASA announced on Oct. 25, 1961, that the Mississippi Test Operations, a national rocket test site, would be built in Hancock County, Mississippi.

The area in Hancock County provided access to the Pearl River basin and state and U.S. highways, allowing transport of the large engines and rocket stages. Isolation from populated communities to buffer noise associated with the engines; availability of utilities; community support within a 50-mile radius; and a climate that permits year-round testing were other NASA requirements for the location. The main portion of the site occupies 13,800 acres in the center of a 125,000-acre acoustic buffer zone, which extends into St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana.

At the time of NASA's announcement, five communities occupied the land alongside the Pearl River that forms what is now known as NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center. Gainesville, Logtown, Napoleon, Santa Rosa and Westonia had been prosperous 19th century logging communities. Gainesville, founded in 1810, was able to boast a former status as the one-time seat of Hancock County. Its economic engine was the Pearl River Lumber Co.

Just downriver along the Pearl at Logtown, the H. Weston Lumber Co. sawmill was said to be the largest in the United States in 1948, and the town's population peaked at 3,000 around that time. Millions of board feet in lumber, cut from the surrounding virgin pine forests and cypress swamps, passed through the river towns' sawmills, feeding the construction of railroads along the Gulf Coast.

Unfortunately, the effects of the Great Depression and World War I closed the lumber businesses and caused a decline in population. When the Army Corps of Engineers began land acquisition negotiations in 1962, only 250 residents remained at Logtown and 100 at Gainesville.

Relocating the residents of Gainesville, Logtown, Napoleon, Santa Rosa and Westonia was an enormous undertaking. Construction began at MTO in 1963, and by that fall, the last remnants of the communities had been safely moved. By that time, 660 families had given up their homes to make way for the future.

Construction was sufficiently completed for the site to be activated for testing in 1966, only three years after it began. The first static test-firing of a Saturn V engine stage was conducted April 23 of that year. Less than four years later, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, safely transported thousands of miles by the Saturn V rocket, powered by engines tested at SSC. The test stands that were built to test those rocket engines are still in use.

Today, SSC is America's largest rocket engine test complex. The South Mississippi facility's main line of business is testing and proving flight worthy every space shuttle main engine. Since the first space shuttle launch in 1981, each flight has been propelled by engines tested at SSC.

As the Space Shuttle Program is drawing to its conclusion, a new fleet of launch vehicles is transitioning to take its place. SSC is preparing to test the rocket engines that will power NASA's next generation of spacecraft, Orion, which is being designed to carry astronauts back to the moon with eventual journeys to Mars.

SSC will test NASA's Constellation Program J-2X rocket engine that will power the upper stage of NASA's new crew launch vehicle, the Ares I, and the Earth departure stage of Ares V, the new cargo launch vehicle. The Ares I and V vehicles will provide the thrust, while the Orion crew capsule will be future astronauts' home in space. SSC recently broke ground for a new rocket engine test stand that will perform altitude tests on the J-2X engine, which is derived from Apollo's Saturn V rockets, tested at the center more than 40 years ago.

Over time, SSC has evolved into a multidisciplinary facility. Thirty other resident agencies, including the U.S. Navy's world-class oceanographic research community, work alongside NASA's rocket scientists, and are engaged in space and environmental programs and national defense. Today SSC is home to modern-day explorers creating a high-tech network involving space, oceans and Earth. NASA's construction of the new A-3 Test Stand ensures that SSC and south Mississippi will continue to play a vital role for the next generation of space pioneers.

For information about Stennis Space Center, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/

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