SP-4310 Way Station to Space


- Prologue -



[xiii] The history of America's adventure in space is one of the most fascinating stories ever told. It is a saga that I started following as a youngster in southeast Alabama some 50 years ago. To my family's consternation, I spent a goodly part of my formative years sitting on our frontporch swing during hot afternoons reading colorfully illustrated pulp fiction sci-fi rags such as Amazing Stories.

Later, when I was learning the ropes as a newspaper reporter, I watched the launch of Lieutenant Commander Alan Shepard, Jr., on his Mercury-Redstone suborbital spaceflight in 1961. No, I wasn't at Cape Canaveral. I would have missed that flight and maybe even the whole space "thing," had it not been for my four-year-old son, Steven, who excitedly called my attention to our black and white TV to watch that signature event. From that time on, I was hooked.

Like many science writers and reporters of that day, I had a gut feeling that the new NASA space odyssey was going to be the biggest story in my lifetime and I had to get close to it. Shortly after that historic day in 1961, a close friend of mine, Zack Strickland, told me that NASA needed a writer at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama. Zack put in a good word for me at the Marshall Public Affairs Office and I was on my way. Another long-time friend, Jim Funkhouser, was already with NASA and escorted me all around the MSFC. Jim gave me a most informative and inspiring orientation that I carried in the back of my mind throughout my career with NASA.

At Huntsville, I had to pinch myself sometimes when I would wind up in the presence of Dr. Wernher von Braun, listening to astonishing plans for colonizing the Moon and flying out to Mars with an armada of electric-powered spaceships. Von Braun used to quip, "Electric propulsion is the best way to travel to Mars, but where are we going to find an extension cord that long!" Because of his unbelievable charisma, none of us doubted that he would someday come up with that magical connection. To say the least, I was awed by the whole experience. and to this day I sometimes find the entire space encounter as unbelievable as the [xiv] proverbial "man on the Moon." And to think that I would someday be asked to write a history of an important element of the NASA adventure would also have been considered by me back then as "pretty tar out."

The idea for this book came from Roy Estess, director of the NASA Stennis Space Center (SSC), whose dedication is deeply rooted in the traditions of the installation. I believe that Roy is the only NASA center director who cared enough for history to obtain a minor in the subject while majoring in Aerospace Engineering at Mississippi State University.

It has been my most sincere wish that we sustain the SSC tradition of excellence with this book so that it will prove useful as it demonstrates that "what is past is prologue" to those who come after us at Stennis Space Center. Also, I am one of those cursed people, forced since birth to "save" everything that ever touched my fingers. During the 35 years I have been associated with NASA, I have packed away letters, memos, flight-plans, agendas, patches, pictures, notes, speeches, astronaut recovery maps, and literally hundreds of pounds of other assorted space-related documents. They had to be used somewhere!

These materials provided a beginning for our pursuit of acceptable archives at the SSC in 1990. Since its inception, Roy has supported the effort to establish an official historical records collection. In addition to Roy's desire to preserve the "rich history of the Stennis Center," there is a NASA directive charging all center directors to ensure the safe-keeping of historical documents and materials. By October 1994, when I finally answered the call to write this book, we had at least 5,000 documents in our computer database. I can conservatively say that about 80 percent of the primary and secondary evidence in this volume came from the SSC Historical Records Collection.

Our research did not rest. however, with locally accessed research material. Documents from the Library of Congress, National Defense Library, the history offices at NASA Headquarters, Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, and Marshall Space Flight Center were also examined. In addition, we personally interviewed more than 100 people who were knowledgeable of NASA programs and the Stennis Center. Also at our disposal was a 21-volume oral history collection developed by the University of Southern Mississippi that proved an excellent source to help document our [xv] work. Lastly, Rex Cooksey and Johnny Mann filmed over 16 hours of interviews on videotape. One can imagine how useful those tapes were in helping research and write this history.

The reader should also be aware of another piece of information before proceeding to digest this book. I was fortunate enough to be one of the first full-time employees sent down from the Marshall Center in Huntsville to the old Mississippi Test Operations in February 1963. My corporate memory did perform an important function. I used that knowledge as a moving guide from the past to take me through the historical roads and seductive side-paths in my mind leading to the materials and people that could help keep the record straight. In fact there were many surprises for me as I attempted to untangle the quagmire of data often created in historical research. One thing about this book that the reader can count on: it is accurate to the very best of my ability and that of the many Stennis Space Center past and present employees who helped with the interviews and readings of the chapters.

What should the reader look for in the methodology and structure of this book? I tried to follow Lewis Carroll's advice from Alice In Wonderland. When Alice was trying to tell the Red Queen what has happened but found herself confused, the Queen advised, "Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop" What I have done here is start at "A beginning," go through to "An end" and then stop! Since Way Station... brings the reader right up to the present time, the last chapter and epilogue were more like reporting the news, real time, than writing history. Fun, but very difficult.

Dr. von Braun, in a 1966 letter to George Alexander of Aviation Week, stated: "The real purpose of MTF [Stennis Space Center] in its broadest context is to provide the United States with a capability during the next twenty to fifty years for captive test-firing large space vehicle systems." The famed rocket scientist said that the construction of the test facility was an "act of faith" that the nation wanted a preeminent spaceflight capability for "the indefinite future."

The relentless pursuit of the von Braun dream and the efforts of the small NASA "can do" team to fulfill the destiny of the Stennis Space Center to become NASA's "Center of Excellence" for rocket propulsion testing are illustrated Indeed, the reader follows the Stennis Center under the leadership [xvi] of Jerry Hlass and Roy Estess, as they strive to elevate the center to a "higher level." With the support of Administrator Daniel Goldin. the SSC has finally been designated the Agency's lead center in that most critical phase of space vehicle test and development-propulsion testing.

Readers of this book will find that the Stennis Space Center and the activities examined are similar in some cases to those at other NASA centers. In many cases, however, the SSC experience has been vastly different from its sister field installations. For instance, the SSC was conceived and built from the ground up, during the early phases of the Apollo program in the early 1960s. Since the Stennis Space Center had virtually no roots before the Apollo era, save that of an offspring or component of the MSFC, the reader will find it interesting to follow the growth of the facility from its birth from Mother Marshall, through adolescence, and into rebellious teenage years as Stennis Space Center grew into full-blown adulthood. Sometimes, too, these growing pains and the quest for independence produced conflict within the NASA family.

A study of the Stennis Space Center will give the reader an understanding of the numerous types of engineers, technicians, and other personnel it took to make America's space program successful. Every discipline of engineering came together to build the Stennis Space Center and test the giant Saturn V boosters. In fact, many of these men and women have stayed at the facility and continue to test the Space Shuttle Main Engines, and the commercial, reusable, and expendable vehicles presently under development. In addition to the "smoke and fire" rocket test people, another breed of scientists and researchers came in during the 1970s to establish the multiagency complex, unique to the United States government. How this transition was carried off by Jackson Bach, then director of the SSC, and his small staff as they began to "reinvent" government is a different and interesting story.

Finally, as the reader moves from "A to Z," he or she will no doubt discover that the Stennis Space Center was blessed with what I refer to as "superb leadership." Senator John C. Stennis, who walks the pages of this history from beginning to end, was an ardent supporter of the facility. Captain Bill Fortune came to south Mississippi and rallied the troops and the community to get it all going. Jackson Balch added a new dimension with his [xvii] multiagency concept. and Jerry Hlass's persistent search for excellence lifted the center to a higher level. Finally, the stewardship of the SSC was handed over to Roy Estess. an engineer who came from the ranks to direct the SSC to become NASA's lead center of excellence for rocket propulsion testing, positioning the installation for its entry into the twenty-first century.

So, this book is about achievement, about leaders. But it is also more about the everyday people who really made the Stennis Space Center tick. These people, who are rarely mentioned in the printed pages of this book, are the real heroes of the SSC. It is my greatest regret that the hundreds and thousands of employees, government and contractor, are not each mentioned in this work. Von Braun often commented during the early years: "I don't know yet what method we will use to get to the Moon, but I do know that we have to go through Mississippi to get there!" Way Station to Space is about that part of America's space story that did happen at a "way station," along the route to space, called the John C. Stennis Space Center.

I fully realize that my long association with the SSC has been a rare opportunity for a historian. Most scholars have to rely on bits and pieces of letters and documents to complete their work. "Being there" is no doubt a great advantage and I am appreciative of that opportunity.

Let us now roll back the clock to a past time when America was about to set out on the world's greatest journey, and the pastoral communities along the Pearl River in Mississippi were about to be swept up into the epoch that changed forever the destiny of the human race.