In the half century since human beings first walked on the moon, a lot has changed, in the realm of spaceflight as much as in the rest of the world.
One thing has remained the same, however – you don’t get to the moon without going through Mississippi.
As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the mission on which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon, NASA has been charged with making the next steps a reality.
And as challenging as President John F. Kennedy’s mandate in the 1960s to land a man on the moon before the decade was out was, the challenge today is even greater – to land the first woman and next man on the moon not in a decade, but in half that time; to develop a sustained human presence on the lunar surface; and then to venture even farther into the cosmos, to take the long-awaited first steps on Mars.
In the 1960s, Mississippi was home to the fire and smoke that helped assure safety for astronauts leaving Earth for the moon.
When engine tests at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, began rattling windows in the growing city, a new testing site was needed.
Thus were born the gargantuan test stands at the sprawling Mississippi Test Facility in Hancock County, today known as Stennis Space Center. Entire rocket stages were tested at a time there – the raw power needed to propel a mighty 36-story-tall Saturn V rocket moonward held in check by massive concrete structures among the tallest in the state.
Soon, a new rocket will be launching astronauts toward the moon – NASA’s Space Launch System.
Almost as tall as the giant Saturn V, the SLS generates even more power than that rocket as it leaves the launch pad.
Already, its engines have been tested at Stennis Space Center.
I’ve had the pleasure of standing in the south Mississippi summer watching an RS-25 rocket engine roar for the eight and a half minute duration it takes to deliver a spacecraft to orbit, watching the billowing cloud it produces and hearing – through earplugs – its deafening roar before it releases an animalistic shriek and falls silent.
And Stennis isn’t the only place in Mississippi contributing to the effort to send the next missions to the moon.
Booster research for SLS has taken place outside Iuka. Software research has taken place at Mississippi State University.
Seven other businesses around the state are contributing to the effort.
Then, as now, the fingerprints of Indianola, Mississippi, are on the rockets that carry astronauts through the void of deep space to other worlds.
In 1969, as newspapers around the world wrote about Neil and Buzz walking on the moon,
The Enterprise-Tocsin proudly recounted the Indianola natives working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville who helped put them there.
And Sunflower County continues to help send astronauts to other worlds.
I have the pleasure of working with Stephen Clanton, who has worked as part of the SLS team at Marshall Space Flight Center today, while his focus has been on another exciting international project in the Brazilian CubeSat mission.
While I’m not a native Sunflower Countian myself, my time in Indianola and at The Enterprise-Tocsin were the launch pad for my own career supporting NASA.
The experience I gained there was the foundation for my first job at Marshall and for co-authoring two books of spaceflight history.
I have the privilege today of working with mission developers interested in flying spacecraft on SLS, from tiny, briefcase-sized probes that will ride along with the Orion crew vehicle on the rocket’s first launch and conduct a variety of science missions, to giant space observatories that may someday dwarf the Hubble Space Telescope.
Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary to the day of the first time human beings walked on another world on Apollo 11.
It’s a time to celebrate, and Mississippi and Sunflower County have earned the right to celebrate as much as anyone not only that historic moment, but their contributions to it.
For those too young to remember the first moon landing, in just a few years, we’ll see a historic moment of our own as astronauts return to the moon.
That, too, will be a time for celebration, and, once again, Mississippi and Sunflower County will be at the heart of it.