SP-4310 Way Station to Space

 

- Chapter 4 -

Temples in the Swamp

 

 

[45] The Task

The challenge of building a Moon-rocket testing facility in the Mississippi mud required a vivid imagination and modern machinery. The promise of unlimited financial resources lessened the difficulty only moderately. The beguiling beauty of the primeval swamp along the peaceful Pearl River presented real problems for both contractors and civil servants who had worked wonders previously in Mother Nature's most formidable bastions. Indeed, for the nation's top engineers, the mosquito-ridden, snake-infested quagmire of Devil's Swamp and Dead Tiger Creek proved almost as unconquerable as the jungles of South Asia and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia.1

Aside from the obstacles of nature, engineers involved in the Mississippi project faced an assortment of design and construction problems. Despite a firm commitment to go to the Moon, at the time of the Mississippi test site selection, NASA officials had not finalized decisions regarding the size and power of the big boosters to be used for the lunar-landing mission. The lead engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center [46] (MFSC) in Huntsville knew the program would require boosters comparable to the new Saturn V, or the more powerful Nova rocket. Consequently, the MSFC engineers began the preliminary design phase with this somewhat ambiguous yardstick in mind. By the time construction began at the Mississippi Test Operations (MTO) in 1963, NASA officials decided to use the Saturn V for the Moon mission. The Nova rocket never moved beyond the conceptual study stage. Nevertheless, plans for a mammoth rocket such as Nova remained in the overall site design, or master plan, in order to accommodate second- and third-generation space exploration programs.2

The mission was to construct test stands capable of static firing the first two stages of the Saturn V. The stands had to be built in time to meet the ambitious launch schedules envisioning landing a man on the Moon in the decade of the 1960s. The first-stage booster, called the S-IC, had a thrust of 7.5-million pounds and each of its five F-1 engines burned for 2.5 minutes - the actual flight time required to place the Apollo Saturn V space vehicle at 36 miles altitude. The second-stage rocket, the S-II, had a thrust of 1-million pounds. This stage had five J-2 engines that burned for 6.5 minutes, which enabled the vehicle to ascend to an altitude of 108 miles. Both rockets presented special problems for the builders. The first stage, the most powerful rocket ever built in the United States and the larger of the two, was 33 feet in diameter and 138 feet in length. The second stage was also 33 feet in diameter, but only 81.5 feet in length. These rockets, the S-IC manufactured by the Boeing Company at Michoud and the S-II manufactured by North American Aviation (NAA) at Seal Beach, California, were too large to be transported by road or highway, and their sizes also ruled out shipment by air. Specially designed, heavy-duty roads were considered and then discounted for short distances on the test site. Through a process of elimination, water transportation became the only feasible means for transporting the mammoth rockets from the assembly station at Michoud to the test stands in Mississippi. To further complicate design and construction of the test facilities, the second stage, a liquid hydrogen-fueled rocket, required unique ground- support equipment, fuel barges, and piping systems.3

[47] Although the testing of the Saturn V was the first assignment for the Mississippi facility, the original purpose of the site "was to provide the United States with a capability during the next 20-50 years for captive test firing large space vehicle systems." The long-range test capability complemented the space vehicle assembly facility at Michoud and an extensive launch capability at Cape Canaveral, Florida. All three of the facilities (Michoud, the MTO, and Cape Canaveral) were government-owned, and, therefore, afforded the government maximum flexibility. Before acquisition of these three facilities, the government relied on manufacturing and test facilities at contractor-owned sites. Consequently, von Braun saw the new acquisitions as "tantamount to an act of faith that the nation wanted a preeminent space flight capability, not only until Apollo was completed, but into the indefinite future."4

Von Braun's philosophy was in step with the long-range vision of many scientists and political leaders in the country who supported a substantial space exploration program as both scientifically rewarding and as a Cold War necessity. President Kennedy alluded to such a plan in his noted "urgent national needs" address in May 1961. Lyndon Johnson harbored such ideas when he first began his work as architect of the civilian space agency (NASA) in the late 1950s. And Senator Stennis echoed these sentiments in his Logtown speech of 1961.5

 

Management, Organization, and Planning

In order to meet the lunar-landing objective, NASA developed a complex, but highly effective, management system, which drew on the strengths and experiences of the government's space and aeronautical elements and on private industry. The chain of command at the MTO began in the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and down through the MSFC at Huntsville. The OMSF set NASA's overall agenda and coordinated the schedules of the various space flight centers. [48] MSFC, with its honed and highly disciplined organization led by von Braun, was well-prepared to meet NASA's ambitious deadlines. Oddly, the only real problem for the von Braun team was handling the abundant supply of resources that came from the Apollo coffers. Von Braun once commented, "I knew what it meant to go to the Moon, but I had no idea what a billion dollars was."6

The MTO traced its roots to the MSFC's Test Division, directed by Karl Heimburg. The MSFC Facility Engineering Office also assisted and participated in the early planning stages. In early 1962, the MSFC made its first formal attempt to establish absolute control over the Mississippi project by proposing a Gulf Operations organization to manage both the Michoud operations and the Mississippi facility. The plan, which included a detailed organizational structure and elaborate statement of purpose, was never officially accepted.7

The MSFC's desire to assert sovereignty over the new test facility led Heimburg to organize within the MSFC Test Division an MTO Planning Office to oversee the construction and operation of the Mississippi facility. Later, von Braun created a Mississippi Test Facility (MTF) Planning Board to serve as managerial arm of the new testing center. On 14 December 1962, von Braun issued a formal charter empowering the MTF Planning Board to "initiate policy and technical direction in the planning, design, construction, and preparation for activation of all portions of the proposed Mississippi Test Facility." Von Braun named Heimburg as chair of the MTF Planning Board, and included Captain Fortune, newly appointed MTO manager, on the board. Fortune answered directly to von Braun on "institutional matters," but was charged with assisting the Planning Board on planning and construction issues. Von Braun also encouraged Fortune to cultivate "community support" for the project.8

An MTF Working Group was organized to implement the MTF Planning Board's plans and policies. Bernard Tessman, Heimburg's Test Division deputy director, was named chair of the group. Most of the 46 people [49] associated with the MTF Working Group hailed from the MSFC Test Division and others came from the MFSC Facilities Engineering Office or from the staffs of private contractors. A.J. Rogers, Jr., an early member of the MTF Working Group, described the organization as a collection of individuals with test and data, structural and civil engineering, and budgeting experience. In explaining the Group's activities, Rogers said, "We got together and developed the requirements that would guide the design and then work[ed] to fund the projects." In 1962, the total estimated cost of the Mississippi project was $250 million.9

The Huntsville planners retained the firm of Sverdrup and Parcel and Associates of St. Louis, Missouri, for architectural and master planning services. NASA Headquarters approved the selection in March 1962, and in April the contract, valued at $1,342,820, was signed. In consonance with various MSFC elements, Sverdrup and Parcel conducted studies to establish the basic requirements for the MTF; they presented their master test site plan to von Braun in July 1962. With von Braun's approval, the planners continued their work, with several modifications, providing site plans, design criteria, and the expansion of support facilities. NASA presented these findings to the Corps of Engineers and instructed them to begin construction. The Corps, in turn, contracted with a number of private firms to design the individual components, about 60 different structures in all, including the huge test stands and the many supporting facilities.10

Early conceptual plans for the Mississippi site included facilities capable of supporting a national rocket testing program well into the future. The preliminary plan provided for test stands for the S-I stage (manufactured by Chrysler Corporation at Michoud), S-IC, S-II, Reactor-In-Flight-Test (RIFT) nuclear stage, and Nova-class stages, in addition to M-1 (liquid hydrogen) and F-1 (RP-1) engines. However, the grandiose plans were scaled down to meet only the testing needs of the Apollo program, using a Saturn V rocket on a Lunar Orbital Rendezvous (LOR) mission. This verdict eliminated the need for Nova-class rocket facilities. The S-I-stage test facilities remained in the picture until October 1963 when the Saturn I program was canceled, leaving only the [50] Saturn IB (a modified Saturn I) and Saturn V vehicles for Apollo program use. Von Braun decided that the S-IB stage would be tested on an existing stand in Huntsville, meaning that only the S-IC and S-II static-testing stands and their supporting facilities would be constructed in Mississippi.11

As NASA officials closed the debate in regard to the rocket systems, planners began to concentrate on the "first phase" of construction. The engineers proposed an extended transportation network based upon a system of waterways for moving the stages from manufacturing points on the West Coast and the Michoud plant in New Orleans to the test stands in Mississippi. These plans included the dredging of the East Pearl River about 15 miles from the Intracoastal Waterway to the test site, digging 7.5 miles of canals within the main complex, and building a Panama Canal-sized lock system to connect the river with the interior canal system. Development of these waterways was given first priority because of the urgent need to bring heavy construction materials to the site by water.12

The plans for the MTO encompassed just about every type of construction that any builder could imagine, from deep excavations in the mud to high-elevation steel work usually performed on tall buildings and bridges. The major structures included two test stands for the S-II stage and a dual-position stand for the S-IC stage. Plans also called for 20 support and service buildings to sustain all future programs envisioned for the test site.13

On the front lines of the construction was the small NASA onsite team headed by Captain Fortune. The team was charged with making the new facility functional and operational. Once the MTO construction and activation were completed, the management team was to serve in a similar, but expanded role, as contractor monitor of the plants manufacturing the rocket engines and stages for the MFSC. The task of assisting in construction surveillance at the MTO was not an overbearing assignment for the small Mississippi team because the Corps of Engineers had primary responsibility for monitoring the numerous construction contractors involved in building the MTO. Fortune and his group were also expected to plan and carry out a program of community, congressional, and public relations; determine and [51] arrange for technical and administrative support; prepare for activation; participate in the initiation of policy and technical direction with the MTF Planning Board at MSFC; and represent the director, MSFC, in Mississippi and at NASA Headquarters.14

 

The Mississippi Outpost

In the spring of 1963, NASA officials began arriving in Hancock County and quickly established their headquarters in the Rouchon House, a vestige of the old town of Gainesville. At first glance, this setting along the banks of the Pearl River seemed a most unlikely place to begin a space age project. Indeed, the building of the test facility - the largest construction project in the history of Mississippi and one of the largest of its kind in U.S. history - was destined to change the landscape forever. 15

The early NASA and Corps of Engineers personnel were captivated by the mysterious beauty of the Pearl River and its surrounding areas. The big wisteria vine at the Rouchon House, with its hundreds of lavender blossoms, was in full bloom. The wild magnolias were clearly visible from the narrow, Lower Gainesville Road, and an odor of honeysuckle and verbena was prevalent in the fresh air.16

Occasional alligators still swam slowly across the river. Smaller water trails were left by numerous cottonmouth moccasins as they swam with only their shiny black heads sticking out of the dark, blue-brown river. A distinct "blup" broke the late-evening silence as a largemouth bass rolled in the river to snap up a falling willow fly. The huge wild pigs, which were part of the Spanish land grants some 200 years before NASA's arrival, were the most dominant daytime creatures. Because of Mississippi's open-range tradition, these boars continued to roam the countryside. Sometimes, the shrill scream of a panther could be heard in the night.17

[52] NASA personnel, coming to the area on temporary assignments from Huntsville, first checked in with Mrs. McCormick and then used the Rouchon House as temporary office space. The porch of this converted lodge was often the scene of NASA and Corps engineers holding meetings and discussions with maps and blueprints spread out on gray government tables obtained from the nearby Michoud plant.18

As plans for construction neared completion, community leaders became concerned about the potential impact of a growing population. They requested that NASA provide more information about the number of people expected to move to the area. In February 1963, Captain Fortune appointed Mack Herring as public information officer (PIO). Herring, who had served in a similar capacity at the MSFC, was charged with using every public relations tool available to "inform the public of the coming of NASA." Working closely with McCormick, the new PIO gave speeches to civic and church groups, wrote press releases announcing construction of facilities, and met with community leaders to help them understand the impact of the NASA installation. During the early months of 1963, McCormick and Mack Herring, received approximately 100 visitors a day. They came to the Rouchon House looking for jobs and in search of business opportunities.19

The first NASA engineer to report to Mississippi was Obed E. "Dusty" Batson. Fortune asked Batson, a native Mississippian, to "explore the area" and become familiar with "every inch" of the 13,500-acre site. Fortune obviously wanted to have a more intimate knowledge of the site, over and above what could be derived from the maps, drawings, and journal information gathered earlier by Corps and Sverdrup personnel. "There were no roads then, just State Highway 43 that ran through the area, and the Upper and Lower Gainesville Roads," Batson said, "I would drive as far as I could and get out and walk the rest of the way." After Batson finished his initial exploratory mission, he also assisted the MTF Working Group in determining the exact locations of the numerous buildings and support equipment. Another engineer who was one of the early pioneers of the Mississippi Test Operations was also [53] called "Dusty," O.L. Rhodes. As liaison officer to the Corps of Engineers, Rhodes reported to the site in May 1963 in time to take part in the beginning of the construction of the facility. Like a number of NASA engineers, Rhodes remained until his retirement in 1980 and then continued for seven more years with one of the operating contractors.20

The number of NASA personnel in Mississippi continued to grow as Captain Fortune selected additional persons to serve on his staff in preparation for the onslaught of construction and then activation of the rocket facility. New employees included Chester P. Lawless, administrative assistant for property accounting, transportation, and custodial services; Wilmer C. Mabry and B.U. Jones, community relations; William Winterstein, administrative officer; Mary M. Dobson, personnel assistant; Yvonne Loveless, administrative services; and Wilda Stephens and Joyce Owston, assistants to the PIO.21

During this evolutionary process, the small group developed a personality of its own. Although the Fortune team had ties to the MSFC, a strong familial bond formed between the members of the Mississippi outpost. Part of this new esprit de corps materialized when the members of the Mississippi unit severed ties with the MSFC, moving their families and staking their professional futures at the "outpost" in Mississippi. Conversely, members of the Working Group, and other MSFC elements that exercised management control over the MTO team, remained within the security of their Huntsville positions and chose to keep their families and homes in Huntsville. These decisions apparently planted the seeds for a family rivalry that continues until this day. Indeed, the sibling space centers mused over such mundane issues as official designations. For example, the Mississippi group favored the name Mississippi Test Operations, which was assigned by NASA Headquarters in December 1961. The MTF Working Group, however, continued to refer to the Mississippi development as the Mississippi Test Facility, implying that the facility was simply an auxiliary of the MSFC.22

The Corps of Engineers set up their first headquarters in a converted fishing lodge, the Cypress House, located near the NASA Headquarters in the...

 


[
54]

From left are NASA Capt. William C. Fortune, manager of the Mississippi Test Operations (MTO); Charles Jackson, area engineer; Col. Robert C. Marshall, Mobile Corps district engineer; Col. Dave Roberts, deputy district engineer for NASA support; and Col. Charles Palmer, special assistant to the chief of the Facilities Engineering Office; review construction schedules of the Mississippi Test Operations in July 1963. (SSC-63-108).

From left are NASA Capt. William C. Fortune, manager of the Mississippi Test Operations (MTO); Charles Jackson, area engineer; Col. Robert C. Marshall, Mobile Corps district engineer; Col. Dave Roberts, deputy district engineer for NASA support; and Col. Charles Palmer, special assistant to the chief of the Facilities Engineering Office; review construction schedules of the Mississippi Test Operations in July 1963. (SSC-63-108).


 

....Rouchon House. As design work progressed and construction starts neared, the Corps named Charles A. Jackson, a veteran engineer with 35 years service, as Area Engineer in charge of all work at the Mississippi installation. Jackson, a native of South Carolina, started his career as a levee work surveyor and became an expert in heavy construction. 23

To meet the initial construction and institutional costs of the Mississippi project, NASA proposed a $52,066,896 budget for fiscal year 1963. More than one-half of this sum went to Base Support Facilities and Utilities. By fiscal year 1964, funding had been increased to $111,690,000. The Saturn V First Stage (S-IC) Test Facilities consumed $35,983,000 of the total [55] appropriation, and the Saturn V Second Stage (S-II) Test Facilities absorbed an additional $19,148,000.24

With money in hand, NASA began construction by building a 16-mile perimeter fence around the sprawling facility. The fence contract, let by the Corps Mobile District, was the first one directly related to construction. In addition, smaller contracts were issued for remodeling the remaining old homes for temporary work space, drilling test wells, and conducting surveys. The perimeter fence project, however, had a high priority because of public safety concerns and the need to protect government property. To supervise the fence project, Fortune hired Harry Guin, a young graduate of the University of Alabama, who became one the leaders who helped shape the future of the Mississippi project. Guin soon learned that even the fence job, which used ordinary pine poles and barbed wire, was a harbinger of construction woes for the builders working in the swamp. Indeed, the workers, mostly locals from south Mississippi, were stymied by a major attack of swarming salt marsh mosquitos.25

 

Signs of Progress

When the workmen on the fence project entered the swampy areas, they found the bites of the salt marsh mosquitos unbearable. Fence workers wore long-sleeved shirts, gloves, and mosquito nets over their heads and tried all of the conventional mosquito repellents, but to no avail. Guin had heard that an inexpensive perfume manufactured in New Orleans would ward off the pesky insects. He bought some of the perfume and provided it to the laborers, but the perfume did little to overcome the problem. Around the complex, survey workers walked off the job because they could not tolerate the stinging bites of the flying pests. Two experts from the U.S. Public Health Service, Clyde F. Fehn and Leslie D. Beadle, investigated the mosquito problem and estimated that an exposed person on the complex received 110 bites per minute. The problem, one of the worst mosquito plagues in years, was widespread along the Gulf Coast.26

[56] NASA soon realized that progress on the construction project would be difficult unless the mosquito assault could be repelled. Consequently, NASA launched a massive counterattack. Two large, specially equipped C-123 airplanes sprayed the entire construction area and buffer zone with chemicals. After the first spraying, the planes then sprayed the Gulf Coast counties with the remainder of the chemicals. Within 10 days, the mosquitos were decimated. The bites were reduced to only 10 per minute, which was considered a "livable condition." Residents of the Gulf Coast welcomed the relief from the mosquito invasion and lauded praise on NASA for its first community "good will" program. Captain Fortune used the occasion to begin organizing a two-state Mosquito Control Commission that continues to serve the Gulf Coast today.27

The enthusiasm generated by the arrival of the first train in Gainesville surpassed the excitement of the mosquito conquest. A NASA news release proclaimed that "the first train pulled into old Gainesville today...too late to alter history, but just in time to play a big role in the future." Southern Railway System received the contract to bring the 10.5-mile rail-line into the construction site and they laid the track at no cost to the government for the privilege of serving the construction and operation needs of the test facility. NASA requested that the project be completed by 1 June 1963. Southern started work on 19 March and the last spike was driven on 10 May - 52 days ahead of schedule. Most of the onsite workers gathered at the end of the line to cheer and wave "welcomes" to the train when it rolled to a stop at its new destination. The L-S Construction Company of New Orleans did the grading, drainage, and structures for the track, and the Southern Railway workers laid the track and operated the line. NASA and Corps builders were impressed by the quality and speed of the first big project. The workers went through two large swamp areas and many predicted that the job could not be finished before the June deadline. Luck, however, was with the railroad workers and they lost only 2 days to rain - during one of the driest seasons in the area's history.28

While the excitement of the record-breaking work on the railroad was a topic of discussion in south Mississippi, another development added to the prestige of the new space installation. NASA announced that it was negotiating [57] with the General Electric Company (GE) to provide technical and institutional support for the test facility. Community leaders marveled that such a large company with a national reputation would consider coming to their community. When NASA and GE reached an agreement that fall, expectations for the future soared.29

Prior to completion of the railroad project, NASA called a meeting of labor unions and building contractors for 1 May 1963 in an unprecedented move to reach a "no- strike" agreement for construction of the test facility. Billed as a "preventive" labor relations conference, the meeting was called at the recommendation of President Kennedy's Missile Site Labor Committee, the first such conference ever held. The underlying purpose was to work out advance agreements on wages, hours, and working conditions to ensure that the vital test facility would be built economically, and with labor peace. The committee sought a three-year labor-industry agreement.30

Over 100 persons attended the conference, which was held in Gulfport, Mississippi. Representing labor at the conference were delegations from the Building and Construction Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Representatives of most of the major building contractors in America attended the conference, e.g., Kaiser Industries, American Bridge Company, Paul Hardeman Company, Blount Brothers Construction Company, International Telephone and Telegraph, Peter Keiwit Company, Rust Engineering Company, Fischback and More, Bechtel Corporation, Morrison Knudson. Most of these large companies were successful in obtaining contracts for work at the Mississippi site.31

The lead negotiator for NASA was Paul Styles, a former union representative and NASA Industrial Relations Officer at the MSFC. Styles, respected and popular with labor as well as industry, brought a colorful, old-fashioned horse-trader's mentality to the bargaining table. Styles used every tool at his disposal to get the job done, including leaking information to the newspapers.32

The labor negotiations went on nonstop, shifting from the Gulf Coast to New Orleans. Styles had the MTO announce that a three [58]-year, no-strike agreement between construction contractors and union representatives was negotiated. The unprecedented agreement, reached by the Gulf Coast Contractors Association and the Building Trades Department, AFL-CIO, virtually ensured labor peace during the construction period and was a critical factor in NASA's ability to meet its lunar-landing program schedules.33

 

An Unceremonial Beginning

As the labor leaders completed their pact, NASA prepared to stage a ceremony marking the start of work on the MTO project. Von Braun had spoken of a "big" ceremony when he was in the area in 1962 for the flag raising at the Rouchon House and he had hinted that Senator Stennis and "other dignitaries" might participate.34

After a meeting with Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett in early April, Captain Fortune announced that a tree-cutting (ground-breaking) ceremony would be held 15 May and that Governor Barnett would be present. Senators John C. Stennis and James O. Eastland, NASA Administrator James Webb, Wernher von Braun, and many other dignitaries were invited.35

Now that the groundwork was laid, the MSFC instructed the Fortune management team to find a suitable location for the tree-cutting ceremony, a place where several helicopters could safely bring in important visitors. The MTO Public Information Office was told that the President or Vice-President of the United States might attend.36

Any hopes of a visit by President Kennedy or Vice- President Johnson soon cooled as the spring of 1963 heated up and the civil rights movement spread throughout the South. In fact, federal officials from Washington were reluctant to appear at any public ceremonies in the South for fear of criticism or public demonstrations. In Mississippi, racial strife was intensifying. [59] Segregationist Governor Ross Barnett and President Kennedy had recently clashed when the White House supported James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi.37

In addition, the Civil Rights Commission recommended on 18 April - the same time NASA was planning a ground-breaking ceremony - that Kennedy consider denying Mississippi $650 million in federal funds. The Commission suggested withholding funds in an effort to force authorities in some areas of the state to give protection to those African-Americans involved in the civil rights struggle. The report immediately focused national attention on Mississippi and drew sharp responses from Mississippi Senators Stennis and Eastland. In separate statements, the senators described the recommendation of the "meddling, busy-body commission" as "utterly ridiculous and preposterous."38

Senator Stennis asserted that members of the two races (African-American and white) lived side by side in peace and harmony. He blamed the problems in the state on "paid, organized agitators and headline seekers imported from outside the state." According to Richard Reeves in Profile of Power, Kennedy himself was embarrassed and aggravated by the Civil Rights Commission report. Kennedy was getting ready for the 1964 election and knew that he would again need the South in his re-election bid. He was not anxious to lose either the southern white or the African-American votes. At a press conference following the commission report's release, Kennedy said he had been advised that "every case [of civil rights violations] but one" had been resolved. According to Reeves the statement was far from the truth, but the press bought it. Kennedy also told reporters that he questioned whether the commissioners were serious people, and he emphasized the unreality of singling out one state for punishment, radical punishment at that - the cutting of federal funding.39

After the flurry of news about withholding federal funds from Mississippi, NASA began to hedge on setting a firm date for the site's opening....

 


[
60]

Work crews saw down one of the first trees on 17 May 1963, signalling the beginning of the construction of the Mississippi Test Operations in Hancock County, MS.

Work crews saw down one of the first trees on 17 May 1963, signalling the beginning of the construction of the Mississippi Test Operations in Hancock County, MS. The tree was cut in Devils's Swamp near the site where the construction dock was built on the turn basin of the man-made canal system. (SSC-63-021).


 

....ceremony. The newspapers around the state carried stories that the tree-cutting (ground-breaking) ceremony might be postponed.40

The ceremony was planned in connection with the first big construction project, involving a construction dock and dredging of a barge harbor and channel to the site from the Pearl River. T.L. James and Company of Ruston, Louisiana, was awarded a $668,340 contract for this project. Guy Stockstill of Picayune received a subcontract from T.L. James for the clearing work. Without fanfare, pictures, or visiting dignitaries, Stockstill and his men began clearing in the vicinity of Devil's Swamp on 15 May. Captain Fortune, who was in Huntsville at the time, sent a photographer to Mississippi to take pictures of the event 2 days after it actually occurred. The fact that the massive project got under way without formal ceremony did not seem to bother anyone. On the contrary, the workers were visibly anxious to tackle what they knew to be a very difficult task.41

In spite of snakes, mosquitos, and watery sloughs, the clearing project went ahead during an unusually dry month of May. Stockstill's crew leveled 158 acres of Devil's Swamp using crosscut and chain saws and piled up the stubborn cypresses, oaks, and tall pines with backhoes and tractors. Seven varieties of poisonous snakes, with the deadly cottonmouth moccasins the most numerous, crawled out of the swamp.42

[61] Sometimes, workers spotted several snakes at one time slithering across the Old Gainesville Road. One day, an HD-21 tractor scooped up a bed of moccasins, and the angry, twisting snakes crawled all over the machine. The operator managed to jump to safety. At the end of each day, the workers tallied up the number of snakes killed and turned the information over to the NASA PIO, who issued the results to the local media. The highest snake kill during the construction period was 85 in 1 day. Jack Morrison, an amateur herpetologist and early employee of the Boeing Company, captured at least one specimen from each of the seven varieties of poisonous snakes, which included the cottonmouth moccasin, copperhead, diamondback rattlesnake, canebrake rattlesnake, two pygmy species of rattlesnakes, and the coral snake. Morrison displayed them in cages where the growing number of employees could learn to identify them, in case they were bitten. Pictures were taken of the snakes, and the photos were placed in the emergency rooms of local hospitals to assist doctors and patients in identification. Snakebite kits were placed in strategic locations around the site. Despite all the talk and activity regarding the snakes, only two persons were bitten by poisonous snakes on the complex. Although one man was hospitalized, no fatalities occurred.43

With clearing, dredging, and construction under way, on 13 June, von Braun named Henry F. Auter as Deputy Manager to help Fortune guide the massive project. Auter was an experienced rocket engineer and chief of the Electrical Systems Engineering Branch of the MSFC Test Division. This astute engineer had the confidence of Karl Heimburg and Bernard Tessman, and had easily gained the respect of all of the technical personnel he worked with at the MSFC.44

As deputy manager, Auter served as chief of the planning and activation effort with the MTF Working Group and was instrumental in recruiting many of the key MTO personnel. Because of his impeccable honesty and absolute devotion to the ideals of the space program, Auter only recruited top-flight personnel.45

Auter agreed with those individuals who advocated the "Mississippi Test Facility" name and consequently worked to instill its use. He pointed out that the test stands, buildings, and grounds comprised the "facility," while the [62] people that made these elements work constituted the "operations." Nevertheless, in June 1963, the MSFC reaffirmed the MTO designation when it amended the organization's charter. The affirmation prompted more Headquarters and MSFC personnel to use the name. Official correspondence, press releases, and brochures were engraved with the "proper" MTO name. Even road signs on the complex carried the MTO designation for the first time.46

 

No Turning Back

Nearly every day during the spring of 1963, the Corps of Engineers announced the awarding of a new construction contract and the roads became cluttered with every imaginable piece of heavy equipment. As a result, people in the surrounding communities became more and more aware of the MTO presence. The most significant sign of awareness came when the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, held annually during the Fourth of July holiday at Gulfport, dedicated its annual event to NASA. To NASA's delight, the Rodeo proclaimed that the dedication would serve as the "official" welcome of NASA to the state. Since NASA had not staged its own ceremony, the fishing rodeo presented an excellent opportunity for NASA to associate itself with the immediate area and the state.47

The fishing rodeo was a big event, with over 75,000 persons from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama attending. Hundreds of fishermen ventured out into the Gulf to try and land prize catches. NASA set up a large Space Age exhibit, which included models and mockups of the spacecraft and rockets used, or planned, for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.48

Governor Barnett, as principal speaker at the Rodeo, embarked on a 45-minute tirade against the federal government for "overstepping its bounds" by encroaching on the sovereignty of Mississippi. Fortunately, the Governor also acknowledged that NASA would be spending "about a half- billion dollars" on its project in Hancock County.49

 


[
63]

An aerial view shows early construction of the Mississippi Test Operations in 1963.

An aerial view shows early construction of the Mississippi Test Operations in 1963. The waterway shown is the first leg of the 7 and 1/2 mile long canal system. The East Pearl River is shown at extreme bottom of photo. (SSC-64-174C).

 

Captain Fortune took advantage of the July holidays to make his permanent move from Alabama to Mississippi, with new headquarters in the Rouchon House. The NASA Information Center, located in a building formerly occupied by "Shorty's 43 Club," also became temporary home and laboratory for test site photographers, directed by Terry Malone. A NASA photographer, Malone gained notoriety for his pictures while in a Navy combat unit. Malone's group was responsible for documenting construction activities. These photographs were valuable to the MSFC engineers and NASA Headquarters's personnel for the task of justifying the huge budget before Congress. Some pictures were forwarded to Senator Stennis, whose keen interest in the project was demonstrated by his personal request for biweekly reports on the installation's progress.50

[64] Soon, the photographers had plenty of assignments as the clearing work extended over the bottom half of the 13,428-acre fee simple area. The sky was filled with smoke in the summer of 1963, as the contractors cut trees over several hundred acres and piled them up in huge stacks for burning. The mosquito problem was brought under control, and the unusually dry conditions in south Mississippi allowed the workers to go full blast on the clearing and excavation projects. The work areas were divided into the Industrial Complex, containing logistical and support services; the Engineering and Administration Complex, with engineering and administration offices, as well as various laboratories; and the Test Complex, which functioned as the data collection point. The 66-million-gallon water reservoir testified to the phenomenal engineering feats of the project. Indeed, the mammoth S-IC dual position stand, rising 264 feet above the ground like a temple in the swamp, with an overhead crane reaching well over 300 feet, was one of the tallest structures in the state.51

The Technical Systems work packages were among the largest contracts associated with the construction. These contracts, for designing and installing the technical systems in the S-II and S-IC test complexes and the various laboratories on the installation, amounted to approximately $40 million. The work, managed by the MSFC, was divided into three phases: (I) Instrumentation and Control Systems (ICS) for the first S-II test facilities and the preliminary design of the S-IC ICS; (II) ICS for the S-IC and second S-II test stand; and (III) Technical Systems for a number of support facilities, including the Instrumentation and Materials Laboratory, Components Test Facility, and the Acoustics and the Meteorological Laboratories. The Aetron Division of Aerojet-General was responsible for Phase I, and GE was responsible for Phases II and III. Contracts for the first of the packages were negotiated on 3 July 1963. W.L. "Willie" Shippey was the NASA monitor of the vast and extraordinarily important Phase I Technical Systems installation project. Summers Taylor, who remained at the MSFC, was the monitor of the Phase II and Phase III Technical Systems installation.52

[65] In addition to land-based construction, NASA built a "Navy" of specialized ships, barges, and floating fuel tanks to transport the giant rockets and store the hydrogen and oxygen fuels used by the Saturn V stages. This fleet included three 270,000-gallon liquid-hydrogen barges, six 105,000-gallon liquid-oxygen barges, two covered barges for transporting rockets through inland waterways, a seagoing ship for transporting rockets from California, and a unique tugboat for moving cargoes within the canal system. The seagoing vessel was named the Point Barrow; the stage barges Little Lake and Pearl River; and the jet-powered tug was christened the Clermont. The construction of these vessels presented special problems, requiring personnel and contractors with nautical backgrounds.53

Major construction firms from all parts of the country came to Mississippi to help build the massive and unique structures that were needed. The big contractor names included C.H. Leavell Company and Peter Kiewit Sons of El Paso, Texas; Morrison-Knudsen Company, South Gate, California; and Broadway Maintenance Corporation and Glantz Contracting Corporation, Long Island City, New York. Several smaller contractors, many located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in nearby Louisiana, joined in the project as subcontractors - supplying services and equipment for the large builders. The building trades unions along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans exhausted their rolls of available workers and sent out "help wanted" announcements to union halls around the nation. Free-lance workers heard of the project and came to the area to join the builders. Joe Moran, a sheet metal specialist from Gulfport, remembered the MTO project as "the best work many of us ever had."54

As the project progressed, more and more workers from across the nation flocked to the area to join in construction of the test facility. New people arrived every day in need of homes, apartments, and other facilities. Construction workers searched for housing close to the MTO site and many settled in Picayune and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in hastily prepared villages of house trailers. NASA, Corps of Engineers, and GE employees also took up residences in Picayune and Bay St. Louis, while others gravitated to the Pass Christian and Long Beach areas on the Gulf Coast.55

[66] Many employees wanted to live as close as possible to the site. Picayune, only 12 miles away, and Bay St. Louis and Waveland, 19 miles away, were reasonable options. Pass Christian was 26 miles away, but was appealing because of its historical and scenic waterfront. Long Beach was 32 miles from the site, and enjoyed what many believed to be a superior school system and reasonable property values. Slidell, Louisiana, only 12 miles from the test site, had already experienced growth due to the NASA Michoud plant and did not attract large numbers of test site workers until Interstate Highway 10 was completed years later.56

 


From left, Capt. William C.Fortune, manager of the Mississippi Test Operations, looks over construction plans with Dr. Wernher von Braun; Col. D.A.Raymond, district engineer for the Mobile Corps of Engineers; and engineer Charles Jackson during one of the many visits von Braun made to the facility while construction was under way. (SSC-63-443).

From left, Capt. William C.Fortune, manager of the Mississippi Test Operations, looks over construction plans with Dr. Wernher von Braun; Col. D.A.Raymond, district engineer for the Mobile Corps of Engineers; and engineer Charles Jackson during one of the many visits von Braun made to the facility while construction was under way. (SSC-63-443).

 

With the large influx of new residents, community leaders and NASA management officials began to anticipate potential problems related to the accelerated growth of the communities. To give the communities and the growing number of workers a boost in morale, von Braun came down from Huntsville for a series of speeches and meetings. On 27 September 1963, von Braun used the dedication of the Corps of Engineers new headquarters building as an opening for his good will visit.57

[67] Von Braun spoke to the test site workers like a football coach getting his team ready for an important bowl game. He told the workers of the importance of the project they were starting and urged them to go "full-steam ahead," like the great river boats in the Mark Twain era. Von Braun even quoted Twain when he said, "When it's steamboat time, you steam!" Building on the analogy, he continued, "When it's rocketship time, you blast off!" Von Braun received a big round of applause from the workers who cheered and tossed their hardhats into the air. Later, Guy Jackson, a speech writer at the MSFC who crafted von Braun's remarks, confided that he fabricated the Twain quotation, but he felt it was appropriate due to the river-town atmosphere of the site's location.58

Later on that same September day, von Braun dined with one of south Mississippi's most noted and successful business persons, L.O. Crosby of Picayune. Crosby, who was in the lumber and timber business, was concerned that the higher wages paid to workers at the NASA project might attract his company's best employees. Nevertheless, Crosby was a gracious host, sharing many stories with von Braun. Attending the luncheon with von Braun was the Picayune (Mississippi) Item editor and publisher Charlie Nutter, Captain Fortune, and Mack Herring (PIO).59

After the luncheon, von Braun addressed the First Annual Gulf South Livestock and Space Fair in south Picayune. Thousands jammed the grounds to hear von Braun speak. NASA had earlier erected a modest exhibit of models and space hardware for the crowd's inspection. "You have to throw the book away when you are planning your future," von Braun said, "Look to Huntsville for an example. Its growth far exceeded anything anyone would dare predict." Von Braun urged the people to get busy developing new housing, adding new streets, and building new schools for the "thousands" arriving as part of the NASA family. The people in the Picayune area were so excited by the prospects for economic growth, they were soon predicting that the city's population would exceed "20,000 people" in the next few years. The population at the time of the von Braun visit was approximately 7,000. When the installation became fully operational in 1966, the population was about 10,000.60

 


[
68]

Dr. Wernher von Braun greets an enthusiastic crowd of admirers at the Gulf South Livestock and Space Fair in Picayune, MS, in October 1963.

Dr. Wernher von Braun greets an enthusiastic crowd of admirers at the Gulf South Livestock and Space Fair in Picayune, MS, in October 1963. During this busy visit, von Braun also spoke to NASA and the Corps of Engineers employees, met with local citizens, and addressed a Rural Electrification Administration (REA) Convention in Biloxi, MS. (SSC-63-084).

 

After the speech, von Braun was rushing to a waiting helicopter to whisk him to Biloxi for a full evening of public appearances when an elderly woman following him called out, "Dr. von Braun! Dr. von Braun! Please autograph my program!" He stopped and signed her program, and then put his arm around her and chatted with the woman for 2 or 3 minutes before leaving.61

Von Braun enjoyed an aerial tour by helicopter of the testing facility construction site. The helicopter then flew him to Biloxi where he addressed members of the Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Von Braun explained to the gathering how the nation would achieve the lunar-landing goal and urged support for the program. While in Biloxi, the scientist held a press conference and said "Mississippi was now a full-fledged partner in the select group of Space Age states."62

[69] The growing number of construction workers on the site necessitated the need for a bank. The nearest financial institutions were located in Picayune or Bay St. Louis, both at least 12 miles from the temporary offices of the construction companies on the NASA site, where the payroll checks were handed out. NASA asked the Corps of Engineers to negotiate a lease with the Hancock Bank to provide financial services. In November 1963, a specially built "double-wide" trailer was opened to serve as the site's first bank. Russell Chapman, Doris Carrio, and Eva Smith were the first employees of the Hancock Bank branch. The small "trailer bank" has since grown into one of the Hancock Bank's most active branches. Employees of the bank have become well-known and appreciated by the installation's workforce and accepted as members of the "space team."63

By the end of the year, the second anniversary of NASA's presence on the Gulf Coast, over 800 persons were working at the test site. Communities prepared for the upcoming impact of 6,000 more site employees, who would complete the construction phase. NASA raised its earlier projections of 1,000 permanent personnel to 2,500. That figure would be raised to 3,000 in the final stages of the project.64

With the construction project beginning to bustle, the MTF Working Group was assigned a much-needed legal counsel in November 1963. Edwin R. "Ed" Ling, Sr., was appointed by NASA to handle legal matters at the MTO and at the Michoud operations in New Orleans. Ling became a popular member of the MTO staff.65

A most unusual occurrence for south Mississippi signaled trouble for the builders when a 6-inch snow fell on New Year's Eve 1963. As workers returned after the holidays, they found the construction site grounds soggy and many excavations filled with water from the melting snow. This episode was only the beginning of a long, wet, record-breaking rainy season that stopped construction and raised doubts as to whether the project would be completed in time for NASA to meet its planned lunar-landing target date. Indeed, the construction of the test site and the readiness of its Saturn V test stands became the "pacing item" in Project Apollo.66

 


Notes

1. "MTO, Special Report," Construction News, vol. 31, no. 10, Special Works Issue (Memphis, TN, 4 March 1964), pp. 16-22, 92-94; Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn, A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles (Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration SP-4206, 1980), pp. 72-74.

2. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn, pp. 39, 50-53, 58-67.

3. NASA Educational Publication, Saturn V Manned Flight to the Moon (Washington DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration NF-331, vol. IV, no. 5., 1967, Stennis Space Center Historical Records Collection at Stennis Space Center, MS (henceforth referred to as SSCHRC); Leo L. Jones, "A Brief History of Mississippi Test Facility, 1961-1966," comment draft (Huntsville, AL: MSFC Historical Office, 24 March 1967), SSCHRC, pp. 34-35.

4. Wernher von Braun to George Alexander, 23 December 1968, SSCHRC.

5. Roger D. Launius, NASA: A History of the U.S. Civil Space Program (Malabar, FL: Kreiger Publishing Co., 1994), pp. 29-30, 175-184.

6. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn, pp. 261-64.

7. Linda M. Martin, "Historical Origins of the NASA Mississippi Test Facility" (Huntsville, AL: MSFC Historical Office, u.d.), SSCHRC, pp. 3-6; Leo Jones, "Brief History of Mississippi Test Facility," pp. 18-19, SSCHRC.

8. Linda M. Martin, "Historical Origins of MTF," p. 7; Charter, MSFC "Mississippi Test Facility Planning Board," 14 December 1962, SSCHRC, pp. 1-2.

9. A.J. Rogers, Jr., interview by Charles Bolton and Steve Patterson, SSC, MS, 4 October 1991, Mississippi Oral History Program, University of Southern Mississippi, vol. 386, p. 6, SSCHRC; Jones, "Brief History of MTF," p. 31.

10. Jones, "Brief History of MTF," pp. 30-34, 42, 45-46.

11. Ibid., pp. 32-33.

12. Ibid., pp. 34-36.

13. A.R. Sorrells, "Mississippi Show Me," Skyline, vol. 24, no. 2 (1966), pp. 1-7.

14. Marshall Space Flight Center Management Manual, "Charter, Mississippi Test Operations," 1 December 1962, SSCHRC.

15. Sorrells, "Mississippi Show Me," p. 3.

16. Ibid.

17. Mississippi, the WPA Guide to the Magnolia State (New York: Viking Press, 1938), pp. 31, 40-45.

18. "NASA's Office in Charge of Woman with Local Kin," Picayune (MS) Item (henceforth referred to as the Picayune Item), 21 November 1962.

19. The PIO referred to in this chapter is the author. Recollections about events and people are reinforced by conversations with persons who were present in 1963. O.E. Batson and Margaret McCormick were consulted on matters referenced here to ensure accuracy.

20. Obed E. "Dusty" Batson, interview by Mack Herring, Wiggins, MS, 7 April 1995, notes, SSCHRC.

21. "Key Management Choices Made," The (Bay St. Louis, MS) Sea Coast Echo (henceforth referred to as The Sea Coast Echo), 21 March 1963; NASA Mississippi Test Operations Personnel Report, 9 January 1964, SSCHRC.

22. Batson, interview.

23. "MTF Manager, Engineers Are Announced This Week," The Sea Coast Echo, 4 October 1962; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers News Release, 2 June 1962, SSCHRC.

24. C.W. Huth, "Chronological History of the Mississippi Test Facility" (Huntsville, AL: MSFC, 23 June 1966), SSCHRC, pp. 11-12, SSCHRC.

25. NASA News Release, 18 March 1963, SSCHRC; Harry Guin, interview by Johnny Mann, October 1991, video history Way Station to Space, SSCHRC; See also Guin biography, SSCHRC.

26. NASA News Release, 24 July 1963, SSCHRC; Guin, interview.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.; NASA News Release, 19 March 1963, SSCHRC; NASA News Release, 10 May 1963, SSCHRC.

29. NASA News Release, 18 April 1963, SSCHRC.

30. Ibid., NASA News Release, 28 April 1963, SSCHRC.

31. Ibid., NASA News Release, 2 May 1963, SSCHRC.

32. Mack Herring, the PIO, was assigned by Fortune to assist Styles with labor negotiations and was with him during talks on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans.

33. NASA News Release, 21 May 1963, SSCHRC.

34. "Saturn Site...von Braun Sees Key Role," The (Biloxi/Gulfport, MS) Daily Herald (henceforth referred to as the Daily Herald), 22 November 1962, SSCHRC.

35. Ibid.; "Groundbreaking at Test Site on May 15; Barnett To Attend," Picayune Item, 11 April 1963; "NASA to Dedicate MTO on May 15, Before Many Honored Guests," Picayune Item, 11 April 1963.

36. Batson, interview.

37. NASA Headquarters issued a directive to all field center Public Affairs Offices prohibiting speakers, public appearances, exhibits, and educational programs to be presented to segregated audiences. This directive was extended to the MTO. In 1963, most civic clubs and schools were segregated in Mississippi and throughout the South.

38. "Federal Funds Halt Suggested For Mississippi," The (New Orleans, LA) Times-Picayune (henceforth referred to as The Times-Picayune), 18 April 1963; "Proposal Is Hit By Mississippi Solons," The Times-Picayune, 18 April 1963.

39. Ibid.; Richard Reeves, Profile of Power (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1993), pp. 468-470.

40. "Set MTO Dig Date," The Sea Coast Echo, 11 April 1963; "MTO Groundbreaking Date Is Big Question," The Sea Coast Echo, 25 April 1963.

41. NASA News Release, 17 May 1963, SSCHRC; "Army engineers Invite Bids For Dredging Section Of East Pearl," Picayune Item, 23 May 1963.

42. Sorrels, "Mississippi Show Me," p. 3; "Confucius Say 'Longest Journey Starts With Single Step'," Picayune Item, 30 May 1963.

43. Ibid.

44. NASA News Release, 13 June 1963, SSCHRC.

45. Ibid.; Auter, interview; Edwin R. Ling, Sr., The Space Crescent: The Untold Story (Huntsville, AL: Strode Publishers, 1984), p. 421-424; NASA Lagniappe (NASA/SSC Newsletter), 26 February 1980, SSCHRC.

46. Ibid.

47. NASA News Release, 12 June 1963, SSCHRC.; "Deep Sea Rodeo To Be Dedicated To NASA in '63," Picayune Item, 30 May 1963.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Ling, The Space Crescent, p. 80; Hlass, interview.

51. "MTO Special Report," Construction News, pp. 16-22; Jerry Hlass, "Search for a Role for a Large Government Test Facility," (master's thesis, George Washington University, 1971), pp. 10-24.

52. NASA-MSFC Progress Status Report, "Mississippi Test Operations, attachment 3," 17 January 1964, pp. 3-4, SSCHRC.

53. Hlass, "Search for a Role," pp. 10-24.

54. "MTO Special Report," Construction News, pp. 10-22; Moran, interview.

55. Mary Holman, "Economic Impact of NASA's Mississippi Test Facility on Hancock and Pearl River Counties, Mississippi," (Washington, DC: NASA, 1958), SSCHRC.

56. Ibid.

57. "MTO Will Affect Area Immediately," Picayune Item, 20 June 1963; NASA News Release, 24 September 1963, SSCHRC.; "Dr. von Braun Raises Colors Over Area Engineer's Office," Picayune Item, 3 October 1963.

58. Ibid.

59. The author attended the private meeting with Dr. von Braun, Crosby, Nutter, and Fortune.

60. "Dr. von Braun Raises Colors," Picayune Item, 3 October 1963.

61. NASA News Release, 6 November 1963, SSCHRC; Mack Herring Journal, 24 October 1963, SSCHRC.

62. Ibid.

63. NASA-MTO News Release, 2 August 1963, SSCHRC.

64. NASA Fact Sheet, "Mississippi Test Facility Economic Impact," July 1965, SSCHRC.

65. NASA-MTO News Release, 8 November 1963, SSCHRC.

66. Jones, "Brief History of Mississippi Test Facility," pp. 26-29.


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