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Stennis Space Center a “hidden wonder” home to major advanced technology developments

By BECKY GILLETTE

Most people traveling along Interstate 10 in coastal Mississippi have little idea of the large federal city located north of the interstate. People come out of the pine trees to the sprawling campus of Stennis Space Center, an economic powerhouse estimated to have contributed more than $917 million during the most recent fiscal year to the economies of coastal Mississippi and Louisiana.

Randy Galloway

“It is a hidden wonder,” said Randy Galloway, deputy director, Stennis Space Center. “People came out here for the first time and say they had no idea that all these things out were out here.”

Each week day you will find highly skilled engineers, marine scientists, information technology specialists and other highly skilled employees among the approximately 5,200 people who work at Stennis Space Center, a 13,800-acre federal city surrounded by a 125,000-acre noise buffer zone that allows testing of rocket engines and stages before they are shot into space.

The average salary of about $90,000 per year including benefits at Stennis is far higher than the state average.

When Sen. John Stennis announced in 1961 that Stennis Space Center was going to be built, he stood up on a log truck and said: Before the rose comes the thorn. You are going to have to give up your homes because we need to beat the Russians to the moon. If you do that, your children will have good jobs, and your children’s children will have good jobs.

At the 50th anniversary of Stennis, the Center looked at the surnames of 600 families affected by the establishment of Stennis. Many of the surnames of the affected families are the same as the names of current employees.

“Sen. Stennis kept that promise for good jobs, and our job is to make that promise continue on for generations,” Galloway said. 

Stennis, no doubt, is home to one of the largest concentrations of brain power in the region.

“We’ve got a pretty big group of people out here with very specialized knowledge,” Galloway said. “About 31 percent of our workforce is engineers and scientists. We have a large concentration of oceanographers and marine scientists, many employed by the Naval Oceanographic Office, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Data Buoy Center. Of course, you have all of us involved in rocket testing with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Well over 100 engineers are involved in the rocket testing program.”

Currently there is a good bit of excitement about testing for the Space Launching System (SLS) that is an integral part of NASA’s plan to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. SLS is the only rocket that can send the Orion spacecraft, astronauts and supplies to the Moon on a single mission.

Engineers will install the core stage that will send Orion to the Moon in the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis. This is being called the “Green Run” testing with “green” referring to the new hardware that will work together to power the stage, and “run” refers to operating all the components together simultaneously for the first time. NASA said many aspects will be carried out for the first time, such as fueling and pressurizing the stage, and the test series culminating with firing up all four RS-25 engines to demonstrate that the engines, tanks, fuel lines, valves, pressurization system, and software can all perform together just as they will on launch day.

“The SLS core stage is an engineering feat that includes not only the largest rocket propellant tanks ever built but also sophisticated avionics and main propulsion systems,” said Lisa Bates, SLS deputy stages manager. “While the rocket is designed to evolve over time for different mission objectives, the core stage design will remain basically the same. The Green Run acceptance test gives NASA the confidence needed to know the new core stage will perform again and again as it is intended.”

Bates said Green Run is about more than testing. “It’s the first time the stage will come to life and be fully operational from the avionics in the top of the core stage to the engines at the bottom,” she said.

Rocket testing at Stennis has gone in cycles. It is very busy when there is a lot of rocket development as is being seen at present.

“The test side of our business has been pretty steady or growing in the past several years,” Galloway said. “In addition to the SLS, there is also a lot of new development in commercial businesses. For the first time we are seeing the commercial industry come up to spend money on developing rockets.”

Private companies such as Space X (Elon Musk), Blue Origins (Jeff Bezos), and United Launch Alliance are involved in building new rockets to launch satellites into space.

“Space X is launching satellites for Internet service than can be accessed with an antenna about the size of a pizza box,” Galloway said. “There are a lot of places on Earth where you really can’t get broadband. Several companies like Space X are aiming to providing that service, but they need thousands of satellites across the world.”

Relativity Space signed a number of agreements with NASA both for testing and manufacturing rocket engines. Galloway said thousands of satellites are being expected to be launched in the next several years.

“Their aim is to 3-D print an entire rocket,” Galloway said. “Relativity Space will be installing some manufacturing facilities at Stennis which will be a good addition to our portfolio.”

NASA has a technology transfer program that allows engineers and scientists to license their developments to commercial industry. Right now, about 1,000 patents are available to license. One example is a technology for the oil and gas industry that involves a novel design that minimizes the number of parts that could fail. Galloway said a group of local entrepreneurs is working to commercialize that technology.

Galloway, who is eligible to retire but has no plans to do so anytime soon, grew up in Kemper County and recalls watching the first space programs on a black-and-white television.

“As a kid, I always wanted to work for NASA,” Galloway said. “Looking back, I feel very lucky in my career. I could do something else, but I am excited about things that we doing in space including putting footprints on a part of the Moon that we have never been to.”

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About Becky Gillette