STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Mississippi — It was a big win for John C. Stennis Space Center when SpaceX, one of the hottest commercial spaceflight companies, said in October that it would use SSC to test its next generation Raptor engine. The decision added another commercial company to SSC’s already impressive roster of private companies using SSC facilities to get them into space.
Fifty years after South Mississippi was transformed by the U.S.-Soviet space race, a new race between entrepreneurial companies promises another boost for this unique federal center.
The future looks bright for SSC on multiple fronts: It’s test stands, the cornerstone of the nation’s premier rocket engine test site, are staying active as NASA eyes deep space and the commercial space race revs up; calls are coming in about acreage that’s available for development; the Navy, largest agency at SSC, is continuing to increase its footprint, as is the Department of Homeland Security’s data center.
“We’re hitting all cylinders,” said NASA’s Dr. Arlen Griffey, chief of the Stennis center services, facility planning and utilization division. “We’re as busy as we’ve ever been.”
Griffey has been at SSC seven years, and his assessment counters misinformation that on occasion floats around the community about SSC’s future.
“There’s a fear that Stennis is slipping or we’re going to close down or something bad is going to happen. In fact, Stennis is doing a very good job of diversifying along with the NASA plan to support commercial space flight systems,” he said.
The more commercial companies, the more testing is likely to be done at SSC’s stands. But not all of it.
“If a commercial company decides they prefer to build their own test stand somewhere else and incur that expense, we get it,” he said. “What Stennis and the rest of NASA is trying to do is build partnerships with commercial companies so they can take advantage of test stands built by the federal government.”
The nine NASA test stands come in various sizes, from large concrete and steel structures to smaller test cells. The center’s capabilities and reputation have caught the attention of aerospace companies.
“A lot of people are looking at the capabilities that NASA has,” said Griffey. NASA is looking for commercial partners to service low-earth and near-earth orbit missions “while we, NASA, focus on more long range things,” including missions to Mars and asteroids.
“There is a new space race, It’s the commercial space race, you see it all around you. You see it in Blue Origin and Orbital and SpaceX, but you’re watching it happen right now,” he said.
In addition to the new companies, SSC also has older space companies that use SSC facilities, like Lockheed Martin and Rocketdyne.
In addition to the commercial and NASA space activities, there are two other federal agencies where growth is likely, according to Griffey.
“The Navy is the largest tenant on Stennis and continues to expand out here,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security’s data center also continues to grow. The security at SSC, not the least of which is the buffer zone, “make it an attractive place.” he said.
Another asset that Stennis can turn into more opportunities for growth is its 13,800 acres identified by Mississippi Power’s Project Ready program.
“If some other federal agency or someone who fit the profile at Stennis wanted to build a greenfield project, once an agreement is in place and if they had money, they could start the next morning. Being certified Project Ready can take anywhere from six to 18 months off a project,” Griffey said.
There are a total of 5,000 acres that could be developed on Stennis for greenfield projects, he said. Much of that returned to NASA when the Army shut down its ammo plant in 2011. “There’s a lot of wide open space and there’s some old buildings we’re going to take down and make more green space,” Griffey said.
Stennis wants to find tenants to rent the ammo plant’s former warehouse, manufacturing, laboratory and office space.
Stennis currently has about 5,000 permanent employees, a half-and-half mix of government and contractor personnel.
From Griffey’s perspective, Stennis is thriving and its future looks bright.
“We’re doing all the things a unique installation like ours should do,” he said. “We’re expanding our federal city with things like DHS and the Navy and our primary mission, which is the test stands.”
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