By The Associated Press
BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (AP) — Fifty years ago this week, NASA announced grand plans for Hancock County — the beginning of a process that would transplant 660 families and carve out from the woods the nation’s largest rocket-engine test site, which is known today as the John C. Stennis Space Center.
The announcement came Oct. 25, 1961, five months to the day after President John F. Kennedy declared in a special address to Congress the United States should commit itself to landing on the moon by the end of the decade. Though the project was a massive undertaking, NASA officials, who were trying to win a “space race” against the Soviet Union and meet Kennedy’s goals, were determined to test rockets in South Mississippi.
The preferred land was sparsely populated, could have shipping access to rivers and the Gulf of Mexico and the climate allowed rocket testing virtually year-round.
In the early years of the nation’s space program, the famous rocket scientist Werner von Braun touted the importance of the Hancock County project.
“I don’t know yet what method we will use to get to the moon, but I do know that we will have to go through Mississippi to get there,” von Braun said.
Today, the federal government’s operations here are on a 13,800-acre site within a 125,000-acre noise buffer zone. NASA still tests rockets at Stennis, but it’s also home to a massive “federal city” where NASA, the U.S. Navy, other government agencies and private companies operate. NASA officials say the center’s economic impact is about $875 million annually and offers locals many high-tech job opportunities. About 5,400 people work here.
In the early 1960s, property from residents of Logtown, Santa Rosa, Napoleon, Westonia and Gainesville, logging communities near the Pearl River, had to be secured to make Stennis a reality. In the 1850s, Gainesville had about 3,500 residents, a courthouse and a shipyard, but a few years later, the railroad bypassed the area.
By 1961, all five communities were sparsely populated, and the forests had mostly been logged off. The low population, deforestation and water access made the area attractive for rocket testing. It was chosen out of a half-dozen potential sites.
Some landowners clung to their properties, which in some cases had been in families more than 100 years. Teams of negotiators were sent to get the land. Sometimes they were met by shotguns and snarling dogs. They also had to coax elderly residents into selling out.
At times they faced political pressure. They also had to invoke eminent domain.
“These men did yeomen’s work to get this thing done,” said Marco Giardino, a NASA historian at Stennis. “There was a lot of political and social angst associated with it.”
Then-Mississippi U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, whose Washington clout helped get the site chosen, was also brought in to meet with the landowners. In what NASA officials describe as an impassioned speech at the Logtown School, Stennis promised holdouts the swamps and cut-over land would be home to a high-tech rocket center, with thousands of high-paying jobs that would be available to them and their future generations. The talk also came during the space race with the USSR, and Stennis naturally appealed to their patriotism.
Eventually, officials secured the more than 3,200 parcels of land and the 660 families began to move out. The bulldozers, excavators and other heavy equipment moved in. The tree cutting to make way for the rocket-testing center began May 17, 1963.
Engineers used sophisticated sensors placed far from the test-stand site to make noise-volume calculations to determine how far the “buffer zone” would need to extend, and settled on 212 square miles.
In the early 1960s, construction crews worked to turn a land of mostly fish camps and logged property into a place suitable to test rockets, originally named the Mississippi Test Operations.
They battled snakes, bugs and other creatures.
“There were a lot of stories of endless swarms of mosquitoes, and snakes, and even a story about a panther scaring a group of men who were around a fire trying to drive the mosquitoes away,” Giardino said. “That’s not unusual, because we sit on a little ridge between two large swamps (Honey Island Swamp and Devils Swamp). You have more critters there than most people want to see in a lifetime.”
At the height of construction, 6,100 workers representing 30 prime contractors and 250 subcontractors were building at the inhospitable site.
Boyce Mix, former director of test and engineering who arrived at the site in 1965, recalled the traffic jams getting into the testing site, as thousands of construction workers and others came in and left each day on one two-lane road to Bay St. Louis.
They worked quickly though, Mix said.
“It was about building a test facility that could get man to the moon and beyond and this whole place was dedicated to that activity,” he said. “There was nothing here and over a period of just a few years, this whole place sprouted up.”
As they began the excavations to build the test stands, the workers hit water. It took much pumping to dry the land. They also built a 7.5-mile access canal leading in from the Pearl River, which during the Apollo program allowed rocket stages to be brought in by barge from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and out to what is now Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“It was an heroic effort by the construction companies,” Giardino said. “Not only was this site unprecedented in scope, in terms of its building and infrastructure, but it was done in an environment that clearly wasn’t human friendly.”
The first rocket test here took place April 23, 1966, when a Saturn V second-stage prototype was fired for 15 seconds.
The work at Stennis in the first few decades was crucial to the nation’s early success in space. There, all of the engines on 11 manned Apollo missions were tested, including six trips to the moon. After Apollo, Stennis was revamped to test the main engines used on more than 130 space shuttle missions over the last several decades. The last shuttle engine was tested in 2009.
The next generation of rocket will be tested here, though, which gives Stennis leaders assurance of a busy future.
“That basically anchored Stennis and South Mississippi for another 30 or 40 years,” said Patrick Scheuermann, Stennis Space Center director.
As part of its evolution, NASA renamed the Mississippi Test Facility the National Space Technology Laboratories in June 1974.
It wasn’t until 1988 that the center was named for Stennis through an executive order by President Ronald Reagan in recognition of his role in its development. It appears 50 years after Stennis’s efforts to get the center built, his initial promise to the holdout landowners of high-paying jobs for future generations was kept, NASA officials said.
Payroll records from the last five decades show about 45 percent of Stennis employees over the years are descendants or relatives of those original landowners. The average salary with benefits there today is $87,000 per year.
“That seems to validate Sen. Stennis’ prediction that if they give up their home, they could go from owning a little fishing camp to having a high-paying, high-tech job,” Giardino said.