Stennis Space Center is NASA's primary location for rocket propulsion testing. It occupies a sizable chunk of Hancock County, along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. The actual test facility includes about 13,500 acres of land, but the larger Space Center itself encompasses a much large 125,000 acre buffer zone to make sure resulting noises don't adversely impact people in surrounding communities.
Our visit to the Stennis Space Center began at an Interstate 10 rest stop in Hancock County, Mississippi, just over the border from Louisiana (Exit 2). All public tours start here. We arrived at the receiving center, showed our identification, clipped-on our visitor badges and climbed aboard a shuttle bus like the one shown above. Stennis is a couple miles further north but tourists can't drive onto the facility like they once could in the past. Fortunately NASA provides comfortable buses and the ride doesn't take long.
We passed a canal with locks as we traveled north onto the base. The guide explained that the old Saturn V rockets used by NASA during the Apollo days were too large and too heavy to be shipped by truck or rail. They were floated on barges up from the Gulf of Mexico. While this part of coastal Mississippi is almost at sea level it is not totally flat so the final part of the journey involved raising the barges as they traveled a few miles inland to the testing complex.
Rocket engines are of course extremely powerful and they must be evaluated with very strong and stable structures known as test complexes. Here is one such structure that we passed during our bus tour. Once engines go through testing they are ready for the Space Shuttle. NASA used the same structures to test the first and second stages of Saturn V rockets for the Apollo and Skylab missions in the 1960's and 1970's.
Here is another rocket test complex. I've been told by people who have been lucky enough to witness these tests that the resulting plume of smoke creates a brief rainstorm in the immediate area after the engines fire.
Once the bus completed its circuit of outdoor facilities, it dropped passengers off at the visitor center.
You may be interested in reading my Stennis visitor center page to learn about the rest of the tour.
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