BAY ST. LOUIS: The towering sculpture of a soaring eagle greets motorists as they turn into the massive gravel parking lot just off Interstate 10 in Hancock County.
Crafted from hurricane-battered timber and scrap metal from a nearby rocket test stand, the lone eagle is the first to welcome visitors to the new Infinity Science Center outside Bay St. Louis.
The first phase of Infinity opens April 12 and is being heralded as a “scientific Disney World” for the Gulf Coast that will introduce tourists, school children and other visitors to the mission and work of the John C. Stennis Space Center.
“Obviously for the Gulf Coast it’s a major drawing point,” said Stennis director Patrick Scheuermann. “Not only for students to be inspired to pursue science, technology, engineering and math majors but for the community to understand what incredible capability exists in our own backyard.”
Stennis Space Center has been testing rocket engines for NASA since the early days of the space race in the 1960’s. Famous rocket scientist Wernher von Braun coined the phrase, “In order to get to the Moon you have to go through south Mississippi.” Infinity visitors will get to see the typewriter and desk that Dr. von Braun used when he worked at Stennis. They are just some of the many historic gems Infinity has secured from NASA and other partnerships.
Clearing the tower
The opening of Infinity is a full-circle moment for Scheuermann, who was a propulsions engineer at Stennis in 1998 when then director Roy Estess told him about his idea for a space center museum.
The need for an off-site museum grew following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Government agencies were looking for ways to preserve and protect their heritage while also making it available to the public. Scheuermann remembers being asked to help oversee the purchase of a piece of land in rural Hancock County that would become the future site of Infinity.
The vision for Infinity and the site itself has since weathered Hurricane Katrina, nationwide recession and even dramatic changes in NASA and the United States’ role in space exploration. Exhibits will not only highlight Stennis’ space race past but also its deep space future as the center continues testing engines for the commercial sector and for future NASA missions to Mars.
Estess wasn’t the only one to help Infinity “clear the tower” to borrow the NASA colloquialism. Another Gulf Coast pioneer was the late Hancock Bank president Leo Seale Jr., who encouraged his successor George Schloegel to finish the center as chairman of Infinity’s non-profit project management board.
Now the mayor of Gulfport, Schloegel can’t wait to help cut the ribbon.
“This is a momentous day for Mississippi and Louisiana,” Schloegel said, adding that for Stennis it is a day rivaled only by May 25, 1961. That was the day President John F. Kennedy revealed his goal of landing an American on the Moon to a joint session of Congress.
“Approximately 70,000 cars a day motor along I-10,” Schloegel said. “As they stop at the welcome center coming in from Louisiana this will be a truly outstanding way to say, ‘Look at what we’re doing in Mississippi.’”
“A hands-on, interactive, science experiment”
While counting cars and ticket sales is a short-term economic indicator, Infinity’s board members hope the promotion of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will encourage increased interest and growth in these job sectors.
Leading that charge is Infinity vice chairman and Biloxi native Fred Haise. While Haise is famous for his role as a crewman aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, the retired engineer is spending his current days making sure Infinity is a place where children can educated and encouraged to meet their potential.
The mission of the NASA Educator Resource Center is summed up by a creative statue of the Space Shuttle shooting off to space on a plume of numbers.
Stennis spokesman Paul Foerman said the center will be a staging area for local school kids to enjoy educational activities not available to the general public. Teachers can also find their own inspiration and ideas from the many resources Infinity will have at its disposal.
One of those resources is the Destiny, a full-scale mock-up of a real scientific laboratory currently operating aboard the International Space Station. Students can learn about space food, gardening in space and see how astronauts conduct experiments in the weightlessness of outer space.
Students and teachers can also camp out at the “Science on a Sphere” exhibit, a stunning collection of science-based episodes that are projected onto a giant sphere hanging from the ceiling. It offers viewers a 360-degree look at earth, the Moon, the Sun and a number of planets.
Foerman was on hand the day the Haise Apollo 13 spacesuit was brought it. He said a Smithsonian historian was on hand to supervise and that a stretcher was used to bring the preserved suit in the museum and up the stairs to the NASA gallery. “They told me they sometimes use coffins,” he said.
Scheuermann, who was an astronaut candidate himself in 1998, said that while Fred Haise is a national hero and can be involved in anything anywhere in the United States, he was happy to help his home state with Infinity.
“He’s ecstatic about it,” Scheuermann said. “People always want to talk about his Apollo 13 days but what he’s more excited about is what he can do to inspire kids — so one of those kids especially somebody who’s a native Mississippian can one day take his place to set foot on Mars.”