Like most Mississippians in 1969, I had no idea that the path to the Moon and to victory in the space race went through Hancock County, Mississippi. But it did.
The Stennis Space Center – then called the Mississippi Test Facility – was the ideal site for testing the Saturn V rocket that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their journey. America is entering a new space race today, and Stennis is going to play a vital role again.
Today’s Space Race
Much has changed since the 1960s. Back then, the space race was a Cold War battle between the Soviet Union and the United States. There are more players now, including rivals like China. New technologies made possible by half a century of innovation make the lunar module look like an antique. And private spacefaring companies are blasting off, adding to the possibilities of exploration and enterprise in space.
The economic opportunities of the commercial space sector have taken the spotlight. Now valued at $400 billion, experts anticipate it to grow to nearly $3 trillion over the next two decades. That is more than the gross domestic product of the United Kingdom. There were 35 commercial space launch and reentry operations in 2018 licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), up from just 17 in 2016.
This growth presents challenges. Scientists and entrepreneurs are creating new and different flight operations, safety systems, and propulsion technology every year, making it necessary for today’s workforce to master concepts that might not have existed or even been imagined a short time ago. The fact that many of the people who do have these skills are at or near retirement age only increases the urgency. With the acceleration of commercial space operations and future launches already scheduled, the FAA will need to do more to ensure that its staff is prepared.
Keeping pace with these developments will require ongoing recruitment, education, and training. As the nation’s premier rocket propulsion test facility and home of NASA’s Engineering and Test Directorate, Stennis is the best-positioned facility in the world to get America’s workers ready for liftoff.
The LIFTS Act
To make sure the FAA and Stennis are equipped for this task, I have introduced the Licensing Innovations and Future Technologies in Space (LIFTS) Act. The LIFTS Act would create a facility at Stennis to train and retrain commercial space licensing professionals. It would provide the hands-on experience necessary to make sure the commercial space sector remains dynamic and safe.
Under the LIFTS Act, Stennis would soon become the focal point for an effort involving NASA, the FAA, the commercial space industry, and academia to modernize and update commercial spaceflight licensing training programs. The lessons learned at Stennis would then reverberate to partners around the globe, teaching them about what works and does not work in commercial space licensing.
Stennis Space Center has set the course for rocket engine testing operations since the first space race. During the entire Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, no engine tested at Stennis ever failed a mission. That legacy continues, and NASA uses Stennis to test the RS-25 engines that will put the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024.
The path to the Moon will once again go through Hancock County, Mississippi. But something unimaginable when I was young – a thriving private commercial space sector – is ready to take off as well. That will be thanks in large part to the Magnolia State and the hard work of the Mississippians at Stennis Space Center.
Sen Roger Wicker Release