To Get to the Moon, You’ve Got to Go Through Hancock County, MS


Before 1962, five communities made up the 150,000 acre area where John C. Stennis Space Center currently sits. Gainesville, Napoleon, Logtown, Santa Rosa, and Westonia used the East Pearl River to ship and move logs. To build what was once called the Mississippi Test Facility, 700 families moved; 786 homes, 19 stores, 16 churches, and 3 schools occupied test site and the acoustical buffer zone. Building the facility is the largest construction project to ever take place in the state of Mississippi, despite this, it only took four years from start of construction to testing the first engine. NASA used the East Pearl River similar to how the loggers did, just with rocket parts instead of logs. Rocket engines and stages built in California were brought up the river to be tested. The locals still say, “To get to the moon, you’ve got to go through Hancock County, Mississippi.” 


My drive from the Florida panhandle was only 2.5 hours, but it was full of beautiful landscapes and plenty of sights. On I-10, there is a tunnel that takes the highway under the Mobile River and even though I’ve been through it before, it still amazes me every time. On several occasions, I saw planes overhead. I can’t confirm this, but I like to think the pilots were the new astronauts, as they are training at NAS Pensacola right now. The marshy landscapes by the rivers I crossed in Mississippi were stunningly beautiful; I regret not stopping to take photos. 

When I arrived at the Infinity Center, I got on a bus that took a group over to the Stennis Space Center, as SSC is generally not open to the public. On the way, we saw the East Pearl River, Dr. Werner von Braun’s former office (called “The Tower”), and offices of other organizations, like NOAA, who use SSC. I won a hat by answering a trivia question correctly. I learned that the RS-25 is going to power the SLS, just like it with the shuttle for over 30 years, and that it is the most tested large rocket engine in history. The RS-25 has 512,000 pounds of thrust and weighs over 7,700 pounds. The SLS will use four of these engines, equaling over 2 million pounds of thrust. 

Once off the bus, I went to a tent where two astronauts would be speaking. Meeting Butch Wilmore and Don Pettit was fantastic, both being very friendly and funny. I was lucky enough to have my question (“What do you miss most about Earth while in space?”) selected. I quickly learned that, after family, they miss nothing. Wilmore said that earthly limits, like his short jump height, didn’t apply in space and he enjoyed starting every morning with a somersault out of bed. “Do off the planet what you can’t do on the planet,” he told me. That’s a piece of advice I hope to one day live out. 

Upon hearing the T-20 minute call, we all shuffled over to the designated viewing field. They had been spraying the concrete section of the A-1 Test Stand the RS-25 was held with down with water to keep it cool, and it looked like a waterfall was streaming off of the structure. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a countdown. I would love to tell you we had that traditional “10, 9, 8” count down to 0, but it didn’t happen. The engine just fired up, no fanfare, however there was no mistaking it. The rumble wasn’t just something I heard, I felt it. The white and grey exhaust immediately filled the sky; the only way I can think to describe it is it was as if someone pulled the trigger on the world’s largest fire extinguisher. For a several minutes, there was nothing but the rocket engine in the world. Stunned silence turned into cheers and laughter. Strangers exchanged high fives and excited expressions. We all arrived as interested space fans, but we left having a shared experience, something connecting us. The exhaust kept building and building until you couldn’t tell where it stopped and the clouds began. I thought the vibration would stop after a while, but it was there until the RS-25 stopped. This test was full duration, meaning it was 500 seconds, but those 8 minutes flew by. If all four engines had been in place, and it hadn’t been secured down, it could have reached Mach 23 (17,000mph) in those 8 minutes. 

Overall, this was so much more than a trip to see an engine, it was an experience. I can’t recommend enough going if you ever have the chance. 

The exhaust of the RS-25 meeting the clouds. Photo Credit: NASA, Stennis Space Center

The exhaust of the RS-25 meeting the clouds. Photo Credit: NASA, Stennis Space Center