On 25 October 1961, NASA announced its decision to establish a national rocket test site in southwestern Mississippi, on the grounds of what would later become Stennis Space Center. The site was located approximately 88 km northeast of New Orleans, in Hancock County, Mississippi, and was originally designated as the location for a large booster (Saturn) test facility under the direction of Marshall Space Flight Center. Known informally as the Mississippi Test Facility, the site was chosen because of its water access, essential for transporting large rocket stages, components and loads of propellants. It also provided the 13,500-acre test facility with a sound buffer of close to 125,000 acres, which proved to be a valuable asset in the years of testing to come.
On 18 December 1961 the name Mississippi Test Operations was officially adopted, but the site was still widely called "Mississippi Test Facility," particularly by Headquarters and MSFC offices concerned in the installation's development. On 1 July 1965 MSFC announced the official re-designation, "Mississippi Test Facility."
One of the first major projects during the construction of the facility was the navigation lock and bascule bridge. The lock, located at the south entrance of the center, is a smaller version of the Panama Canal lock and was used to lift rocket stages and propellant barges as much as 20 feet from the Pearl River's sea level elevation. These man-made canals and turning basin enabled the transportation of various pieces of equipment and test phases of rockets to the necessary destinations. These amenities facilitated the movement of tested Saturn V's to the Kennedy Space Center during the peak of the Apollo era.
Of central importance to the Mississipi Test Facility was the Rocket Propulsion Test Complex, designated a national historic landmark in October 1985. The two test areas, A and B, of the test complex were built in 1965. The B Test Complex supported all ground testing for the S-1C stage of the Saturn V rocket. Its test stand is a dual position stand, 407 feet tall and constructed from steel and concrete resting on 1600 steel pilings each 98 feet long. During test firings, four huge hold-down arms anchored to a slab of concrete 39 feet thick secured the S-IC stage. The restraining arms clamped onto the rocket tail by means of a drive mechanism geared to move only three inches per minute. In addition to the test stand, the B Test Complex consists of a Test Control Center (TCC) and the required technical facilities (water, electrical, high pressure gas, propellant systems, etc.), as well as the associated ground support equipment necessary to control and fire the captive stage. The TCC houses the equipment and people required to control, observe, supervise and monitor the operation of the test complex. The TCC is also a position from which technical observers can view test firings and which provides a blast-proof location for test stand personnel who have vacated the stand during test firings. The TCC is capable of supporting additional stage and/or engine test stands. The high-pressure Gas System includes a battery of air, nitrogen and helium. The propellant system includes a 300,000-gallon ready storage tank and docking and transfer facilities for the liquid propellant barges.
The A Test Complex performed all ground testing for the S-11 stage of the Saturn V rocket. It consists of two single-position test stands, designated A-1 and A-2, a TCC, observation bunkers, technical systems (such as high-pressure gas systems, water, electrical, etc.), as well as all associated ground service equipment necessary to control and fire engines or stages involved. Each stand is capable of static firing a stage up to 33 feet in diameter and 82 feet long. Using an adapter system or modifying the stand can test stages of greater or smaller diameter and length. These stands were designed for 1,000,000 pounds of thrust although they have a capability up to 1,200,000 pounds. The stand propellant systems include liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The TCC here performs the same functions as the B TCC. It is also capable of supporting additional test stands without modifying the physical facilities.
In 1970, NASA established an Earth Resources Laboratory at Mississippi Test Facility, and a number of other Government agencies, at NASA invitation, moved research activities related to resources and the environment to MTF to take advantage of its facilities. Today, Stennis Space Center exists as a 'Federal City', comprised of government and private research facilities, as well as an extensive visitor center (StenniSphere).
On 14 June 1974 Mississippi Test Facility was renamed "National Space Technology Laboratories" and became a permanent NASA field installation reporting directly to NASA Headquarters.
A new chapter was added in June 1975 when the Space Shuttle Main Engine was tested at Stennis for the first time. All the engines used to boost the Space Shuttle into low-Earth orbit are tested and proven flight worthy at SSC on the same stands used to test fire all first and second stages of the Saturn V in the Apollo and Skylab programs. The A Test Complex of the Rocket Propulsion Test Complex now supports engine testing for the Space Shuttle program.
Today, Stennis has expanded its rocket test capabilities. The E Test Complex was constructed as a result of several national propulsion development programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The versatile, three-stand complex includes seven separate test cells capable of testing that involves ultra high-pressure gases and high-pressure, super-cold fluids. These modern, state-of-the-art propulsion test facilities are designed for testing developmental components to full-scale engines.
In May 1988, Mississipi Test Facility was renamed the John C. Stennis Space Center in honor of U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis for his steadfast leadership and staunch support of the nation's space program. It continues on today as a collaborative research community, with residents including the US Navy, Lockheed Martin, and NASA research programs.
Additional resources about Stennis Space Center:
Herring, Mack R. Way Station to Space: A History of the John C. Stennis Space Center. NASA
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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