Between President Kennedy’s 1961 declaration that Americans would fly to the moon and Armstrong’s “one small step” in 1969, lots of people put in untold time, work and effort to make sure America would be the first to get to the moon. Much of that time, work and effort took place right here in Coastal Mississippi at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center.

The storied history of the Stennis Space Center makes for a visitor experience unlike any other, and what better time to visit than the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Read on for more information about Coastal Mississippi’s relationship to one of the most important events in history.  


The Role of the Stennis Space Center in the Moon Landing

In the early planning stages for Apollo 11, NASA officials were still unsure what method to use to get to the moon. What they did know, though, was that Coastal Mississippi, specifically Hancock County, would be a necessary component in achieving their goal. One of the most famous and most influential rocket developers, Dr. Wernher von Braun, went so far as to say, “I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but to get to space, we’re going to have to go through Hancock County.”

Thus, in October 1961, the federal government announced it had selected an area in Hancock County to be a test facility for launch vehicles to be used in the Apollo manned lunar landing program due to its large land mass, network of roads and its canal system. At the time, it was the largest construction program in the state and the second largest in the nation. Construction started in 1963, and by 1966, the people at Stennis were testing rocket engines, giving America a substantial advantage over the Soviet Union.

The Stennis Space Center’s primary mission was to flight certify all first and second stages of the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo program. Notably, all the Apollo space vehicle boosters did their job without a single failure, including those for the Apollo 11 mission. Because NASA was able to extensively test the rockets at the Stennis Space Center before the mission, getting to the moon became much easier. Without the construction and usage of the Coast’s own Stennis Space Center, America’s moon landing likely might never have happened.


The Story of Fred Haise

Fred Haise, a Biloxi native, is one of the 24 people to ever have flown to the moon. Haise studied at Biloxi High School and continued his education locally at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Before he became an astronaut, Haise delivered newspapers in East Biloxi for the Daily Herald, the predecessor of the Sun Herald. Even though he had aspirations of becoming a journalist, he joined the military during the Korean War and became a pilot. After returning to school for a brief period, he then worked for the newly created NASA as a research pilot at the Lewis Research Center near Cleveland.

Haise was then selected as one of the 19 new astronauts for NASA Astronaut Group 5. He trained side-by-side with the Apollo 11 astronauts as back-up, but he didn’t board a spacecraft to the moon until nine months later on Apollo 13.

Unfortunately, an explosion in an oxygen tank 200,000 miles from Earth prevented Haise from becoming the sixth man to walk on the moon. That being said, Haise and his fellow astronauts came within 137 nautical miles of the moon before returning to Earth–likely the record for the farthest distance from the Earth ever traveled by human beings. Even though he didn’t get to walk on the moon, he did become the first pilot to fly the Space Shuttle.

In addition to the many astronaut awards he’s received, he was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom after Apollo 13 and was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame, the Aerospace Walk of Honor and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Haise is a testament to the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s importance in history as well as an encouragement that big dreams often yield incredible results.


A Visit to the Stennis Space Center and the Infinity Science Center

Today, the Stennis Space Center is complemented by the Infinity Science Center, allowing visitors a glimpse into the Space Center itself and inspiring young people to consider careers in science and technology. Between 75,000 and 80,000 visitors each year can see how the Infinity Science Center has preserved the Apollo missions for both those who witnessed the space launches and those who did not.

There’s never been a better time to visit the Infinity Science Center. This July, Infinity is hosting Man On The Moon: A Members Only Event where young astronauts can participate in “So You Wanna Be an Astronaut?” with hands-on activities. While your kids play, you can check out the many exhibits that allow you to see historical lunar landing footage and walk through Apollo 11 memorabilia and historical documentation. The event is only available for INFINITY member but is free and will run Mondays (10-12) and Thursdays (1-3) in July. So why not come down to the Infinity Science Center and see where history was created right here in our own neck of the woods? Blast off!