Going to the Moon through Mississippi

We were on I-10 in Mississippi, traveling from New Orleans to Montgomery, Alabama, when we saw a sign for a NASA space center visitor center. “Do you want to stop?” asked Mr. History Tourist.

It wasn’t on our itinerary but sure. Why not? I wanted to give Mr. HT a break from plantations and battlefields.  Space and science-related topics are more his thing.

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The John C. Stennis Space Center is one of ten NASA field centers in the US and is the lead for NASA’s rocket propulsion testing.  It was opened in the 1960s and tested rockets for early moon missions. “[T]here was a saying in the communities surrounding Stennis,” says the NASA website. “If you want to go to the moon, you first have to go through Hancock County, Mississippi.”

This is the sign in a swamp directly in front of the building. We stood there for about 15 minutes, hoping to see an alligator.  We didn’t.

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In 2001, a nonprofit group formed to take the tiny visitor center for the Stennis Space Center and transform it into a larger ocean and space themed science center. The Infinity Science Center opened in 2012.  It features educational exhibits that draws, says the Infinity website, “content from real-life space and ocean exploration activities conducted by the more than 30 labs and offices at the nearby research complex.”

They asked us, when we bought our tickets, whether we wanted to go on a bus tour of the Stennis Space Center, about 4 miles away. It leaves from the Infinity Center a few times a day. We declined. We didn’t want to take the time. And I’m glad we decided not to go, since the reviews I’ve read since say that it’s 90 minutes of looking at buildings from the bus. Ninety minutes of looking at the outside of 1960s government buildings? I don’t think so.

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Most of the Infinity Center’s exhibits seemed focused on getting children interested in science, so there were a lot of hands-on activities.  Above is Mr. HT trying to land a space shuttle.  He did it.

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There was some space history to be had.  On the left is a training suit that was originally Neil Armstrong’s. Each Apollo astronaut had three space suits: one for training, one for the flight, and one for a flight back-up. The name of the original wearer is on each suit, but the suits later get used by others as long as they’re still viable.  I don’t know how many people used this one but as you can see, it’s pretty battered.

On the right was my favorite object: a sleeping bag in the International Space Station Destiny laboratory.  They displayed the entire lab, but in true History Tourist style, I was drawn to the sleeping compartment (but only because the eating area was boring). Of course, the pillow is actually useless when you’re sleeping upright.  It’s just there because people are used to having something behind their head.

Our visit to the center, because we didn’t take the bus tour, or watch the films, or ride the simulator, took less than an hour.

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To tie the Stennis Center into our road trip theme of Confederate Lost Cause/Civil Rights history: the space center was named after John C. Stennis, a US Senator from Mississippi from 1947 to 1989. As a prosecuter for Mississippi’s 16th district, he got murder convictions against three black sharecroppers who had confessed under torture.  That they were tortured wasn’t a secret; it was part of the official police record.  The convictions were overturned by the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Mississippi (1926), which outlawed the use of evidence obtained by torture. He was a segregationist and, as a senator, would opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act.  He did, however, have a change of heart later in life.  He voted in favor of the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act and, in 1986, supported the campaign of Mike Espy. Espy would become the first black congressman from Mississippi since John Lynch in 1883.

 

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