In a moment when the nation is rethinking how we memorialize historical figures who represent different values than our society today, an important NASA facility located in Mississippi is receiving national attention over its name.

Stennis Space Center is a NASA engine test facility located just north of Interstate I-10 in Hancock County, Mississippi. The NASA site is 39 miles east of NASA’s neighboring Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s not uncommon for engineers and project managers from nearby Slidell, Louisiana, to work at the Mississippi test facility.

The NASA site takes its name from the late Senator John Cornelius Stennis, a celebrated U.S. senator from Mississippi who served in Congress for over 41 years. Mr. Stennis can be described as a proponent of racial segregation based on the senator’s statements and voting record on civil rights policy while in office.

The issue of Stennis Space Center’s name has since been raised to NASA leadership. Today, the possibility of a new name is considered possible, but opposition from statewide and national leadership could be a roadblock.

A moment and a movement

Will Pomerantz, VP of Special Projects at Virgin Orbit, a launch service provider focused on sending small payloads to space from anywhere using a launch system attached to 747 planes, brought the issue of NASA’s test facility name to his audience in June.

Through a Twitter thread outlining the origin of Stennis Space Center’s name, Mr. Pomerantz prompted responses from a former astronaut, former NASA deputy administrator, and hundreds of others who follow NASA and the aerospace industry.

Marcia Smith at SpacePolicyOnline amplified the issue, and Allyson Waller from The New York Times prompted a response from NASA.

Asked about Mr. Pomerantz’s campaign, a NASA spokeswoman said in an email that the agency was engaged in “ongoing discussions” about the names of its facilities.

“NASA leadership is sensitive to the discussions of racism, discrimination and inequalities going on around the world, including conversations about renaming facilities,” the spokeswoman said. “We are having ongoing discussions with the NASA work force on all of these topics. NASA is dedicated to advancing diversity, and we will continue to take steps to do so.”

Five Republicans from Mississippi, including both U.S. senators and the congressman representing the district in which the NASA facility is located, released a statement opposing any effort to rename Stennis Space Center within hours of the New York Times story being published.

U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., and Representatives Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., Trent Kelly, R-Miss., and Michael Guest, R-Miss., today issued the following statement regarding a new effort to rename The NASA John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County:

“We strongly oppose any effort to rename the John C. Stennis Space Center. In serving the people of Mississippi and the United States for more than 40 years in Congress, Senator Stennis was known above all as a principled and fair-minded leader with a keen interest in promoting our national security. He was also a strong advocate for American leadership in space exploration. As President Reagan noted in his 1988 executive order to rename the facility, the Stennis Space Center would not exist without his strong support for our nation’s fledgling space program and his personal advocacy for the project to the residents of Hancock County. Removing Senator Stennis’s name from the facility he was instrumental in creating would do nothing to advance the cause of justice in our nation.”

Space Explored spoke with Will Pomerantz about the campaign to rename Stennis Space Center in the first episode of our new Space Time podcast.

Stennis Space Center and the issue of its name runs parallel to Mississippi legislature voting to remove the Confederate flag from its state flag. The flag change through Mississippi’s state congress required support from Republican majorities in both houses and approval by Governor Tate Reeves.

A popular flag design that will likely appear on the ballot in November from which voters can choose is the Hospitality Flag. Originally named the Stennis Flag, Laurin Stennis stepped back from the project after designing and promoting the popular Mississippi state flag alternative. Ms. Stennis is the granddaughter of Senator Stennis.

“In a continued effort to be of service, I will be stepping away from this endeavor as I understand the hurt and potential harm my last name may cause,” Ms. Stennis announced in June.

Sarah Fowler reported on the development for the Mississippi Clarion Ledger.

The flag issue was also pushed by Republican Speaker Philip Gunn, who has called for a new state flag since 2015. Mr. Gunn could not be reached for comment on his position over changing the space center name in time for publication.

Congressman Bennie Gordon Thompson, a Democrat who has served as the U.S. Representative for Mississippi’s 2nd congressional district since 1993, says he was not asked to sign the letter opposing renaming the NASA facility that was published by Republicans.

We spoke with Mr. Thompson who says it’s “not a problem at all” to change the name of Stennis Space Center. He argues that the NASA facility is named after someone who supported policy that courts found unconstitutional.

The congressman expresses optimism that the nation is on the “right track to correct past mistakes,” and that historical figures who were “against their own constituents” should not be memorialized.

A historical NASA facility

Historically, the NASA facility plays a critical role in advances in spaceflight. Engines used to power the Saturn V rocket that sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon 51 years ago this week were tested at the site. The same is true for rocket engines used for NASA’s space shuttle program.

S-II stage of the Saturn V rocket hoisted onto the A-2 test stand in 1967 at the Mississippi Test Facility, now the Stennis Space Center

Currently, the test facility is responsible for testing and signing off on a powerful rocket component for NASA’s new Space Launch System.

NASA plans to return to the Moon as soon as next year using SLS. Ultimately, the space agency wants to send astronauts including the first woman to walk on the Moon by 2024. The effort is part of NASA’s newly named Artemis program, named after the goddess twin sister to Apollo, NASA’s original lunar program, which also includes plans to go to Mars.

212-foot tall Space Launch System core stage on the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center

But NASA can’t send the first female astronaut to the Moon or first humans to Mars without first going through Stennis. This symbolism creates tension for those who study the origin of the test facility’s name.

Who was John C. Stennis?

Senator John C. Stennis is celebrated by conservatives in Mississippi for being a statesman, and historians will recall Mr. Stennis as being called the “Conscience of the Senate” during his 41 years in the legislative body.

In the book Images of America: Stennis Space Center, author Cindy Donze Manto who has published a number of books on NASA facilities and spaceflight achievements, describes the senator’s reputation for being “respected for his integrity, diligence, and judgment while serving on the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct.”

U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis speaks during a 1988 ceremony naming NASA’s rocket engine testing facility in south Mississippi in his honor

Mr. Stennis also authored the first Senate Ethics Bill and served on Appropriations and Armed Services committees. Mr. Stennis was turned down for military service in 1942 due to health reasons.

And while the senator’s service to the United States encompasses more than his civil rights record during the 1950s and 1960s, it’s his support for segregation across decades that cannot be disassociated with the namesake of NASA’s test facility in Mississippi.

Senator Stennis opposed the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. By 1982, an election year for Mr. Stennis, the senator did vote with the majority to extend the Voting Rights Act that he twice voted against.

Mr. Stennis did not campaign for fellow Democrat Robert Clark, a Black member of the Mississippi House, when Mr. Clark ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, however. Mr. Clark lost his bid for the U.S. House seat.

Four years later, the senator did campaign for Mike Espy during the senator’s final term in office. Mr. Espy is currently a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate running against Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. He is also the first Black congressman from Mississippi in the U.S. House of Representatives after winning his election with the endorsement of Mr. Stennis.

Mr. Espy could not be reached for his position on renaming Stennis Space Center in time for publication.

A technician performs maintenance on a Space Shuttle Main Engine, (SSME) to prepare it for testing at the John C. Stennis Space Center

Jere Nash, a Mississippi political historian who worked as campaign manager for former Democratic Governor of Mississippi Ray Mabus in 1987, debated the idea of Stennis-as-Statesman in 2015 in an op-ed published in The Clarion-Ledger.

“To my mind, a ‘statesman’ is someone who puts his career at risk by taking positions on public policies that may not sit well with a majority of the voters. Stennis never did that,” Mr. Nash wrote.

In a book review of Don Thompson’s Stennis: Plowing a Straight Furrow biography of Senator Stennis, Mr. Nash calls out specific sections of the publication that characterize Mr. Stennis in the biographer’s own words.

“Thompson provides more than enough evidence that, in his early Senate years, Stennis believed Blacks really were not equal to whites while in his later years believe Black Mississippians should simply wait their turn to enjoy equal rights,” Mr. Nash writes.

“While I could cite many examples Thompson provides in his book, this 1948 statement by Stennis is one of the most revealing,” Mr. Nash continues.

Mr. Nash goes on to quote Mr. Stennis in the book review:

We have taken the most backward people from the world’s darkest continent, and in a little more than a century, we have trained them, given them a religion, given them an education, given them the rights of citizenship, protected these rights in and out of court, and to a certain degree, given them a culture.

The book review goes on with this quote near the end of the senator’s time in the senate:

As late as 1988, Stennis told a reporter, ‘My idea was that the so-called civil rights bills were too abrupt … went too far and were out of line. Adjustments were made under the law … We Finally got out of that extremism. It takes time to make adjustments.’

Lastly, Mr. Nash recalls a section from the biography that includes a letter in 1944 from a constituent and WWII soldier:

You know that the Negroes are with us as well as the white. And after this war they are going to want the same treatment as we get.

Mr. Thompson, the biographer, notes that Mr. Stennis was “unheeded” by the “prophetic” message. Mr. Nash notes that Mr. Thompson does not cover “the siting of the NASA facility in Hancock County” in the biography.

U.S. Senator from Mississippi, John Stennis (left) visited the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in mid-November 1967, where he was greeted at the Redstone Airfield by Center Director Dr. Wernher von Braun (right).

A NASA site saved

So what role did Senator John C. Stennis play in advancing the goals of NASA and space exploration? Presumably, Senator Stennis lobbied for the site of what was originally called the Mississippi Test Facility during the Apollo era.

As noted in Images of America: Stennis Space Center, Mr. Stennis enjoyed a friendly relationship with President John F. Kennedy and joked that the president “did not ask, but told him that the expected Stennis’s support of the newly formed space program.”

The book also notes that the site was chosen due to its “relatively isolated location, with water access and year-round mild weather,” not to mention its prime location near the existing Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

The site wasn’t ideal, however, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered during the construction process. Images of America describes issues caused by at least 33 species of mosquitoes and “black flies, deer flies, dog flies, sandflies, and the common housefly.”

This image shows an aerial view of NASA Dock at Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) with four barges, (left to right) Paleamon, Promise, Poseidon, and Orion. The barges ferried Saturn IB and Saturn V stages between Marshall Space Center (MSFC); Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF); Mississippi Test Facility (MTF, currently Stennis Space Center); and Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Some 2500 workers were tasked with building the test facility, and insect interference resulted in a 25% loss of work efficiency as crews were forced to walk off the job. The bug problem was eventually solved by paving old logging roads to support fog trucks.

Ultimately, five small towns were required to relocate to accommodate the buffer zone around the Mississippi Test Facility: Gainesville, Logtown, Napoleon, Santa Rosa, and Westonia.

Near Stennis Space Center today

As a U.S. Senator representing Mississippi, Mr. Stennis played a key role in assuring residents of those five towns that the U.S. government would fully compensate everyone who lost property and had to relocate. “You have got to make sacrifices but you will be taking part in greatness,” Senator Stennis declared to families at Logtown in 1961 who would be affected by the site location decision.

Perhaps the biggest impact Mr. Stennis had on the NASA test facility came in 1969 and 1970.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, as part of the historic Apollo 11 mission with support that roots back to work done by engineers at the Mississippi Test Facility.

Then Hurricane Camille struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast where the test facility is located on August 17, 1969. The Category 5 hurricane with wind speed up to 190 miles per hour created a 25-foot storm surge and is the second most intense hurricane to strike the continental U.S. to date.

Ms. Cindy Donze Manto describes the pivotal moment in Images of America: Stennis Space Center:

Twelve days later, the third NASA administrator, Dr. Thomas O. Paine, NASA director Dr. Wehner von Brain, and Senator John C. Stennis visited the facility to assess the situation and assure the employees of continued employment.

But on January 20, 1970, NASA announced the phase-out of Mississippi Test Facility by the end of the year. The announcement brought swift political responses from the four senators representing Mississippi and Louisiana, who insisted that full utilization be the ultimate goal.

The book goes on to describe Mr. Stennis’s work to hold NASA accountable for keeping the facility open, including requesting “a list of actions taken and personnel working on the problem” from NASA.

Two months later, Mr. Stennis signed a letter written by Senator Allen J. Ellender to President Richard Nixon expressing dissatisfaction over the lack of a decision on the fate of the Mississippi Test Facility.

Mr. Nixon announced on the same day that NASA would keep the Mississippi Test Facility open and locate the U.S. Coast Guard National Data Buoy Project and a new Earth Sciences Laboratory at the site.

The Mississippi Test Facility became the National Space Technology Laboratories in 1974. President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order 14 years later that named the site after Mr. Stennis in 1988.

After 41 years in the senate, Mr. Stennis retired in 1989. Mr. Stennis died in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1995.

More than a space center

Today the Stennis Space Center is considered a federal city and home to over 30 government agencies and private companies. The largest personnel count is said to be that of the U.S. Navy.

The National Data Buoy Center maintains its presence that started in 1970. The NDBC is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service — a critical component of storm tracking in the hurricane-prone region.

Rolls-Royce, United Launch Alliance, and Lockheed Martin are among major commercial companies who have a presence at the site. Mississippi State University and The University of Southern Mississippi also have a number of institutes and departments at Stennis Space Center.

So what should happen to the name of the historic and still critical NASA test facility in Mississippi?

Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys and October Sky, shared his framework for naming things including the NASA facility.

“Although I have no animus against Sen. Stennis and his family, I can say with some confidence that NASA employees and alumni would prefer their centers not be named after career politicians,” Mr. Hickam wrote. “Career politicians should be noble enough to disdain that kind of naming in any case in favor of a citizen who has given his or her life for their country. This goes for ships or anything else.”

Mr. Hickam is also a former NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center engineer who was selected by Vice President Mike Pence to serve on the National Space Council Users Advisory Group, part of the National Space Council revived by President Donald Trump in 2017.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine discusses the fiscal year 2021 budget proposal during a State of NASA address, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. 

Questions remain about how changing the name of the NASA facility could actually happen. It was an executive order signed by President Reagan in 1988 that gave Stennis Space Center its name to start.

As an agency, NASA says it continues to have discussions about topics including Stennis Space Center. What about locally within Stennis Space Center?

“Stennis leadership has been involved in the ongoing discussions, and we are continuing to have conversations and listening dialogues with our NASA workforce,” the Stennis Office of Communications tells Space Explored.

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