When the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed over NASA’s Stennis Space Center last August, a quarter of the Mississippi field center’s 4,500-person work force was left homeless, victims of the widespread devastation the Category 5 storm caused when it pummeled the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Among the hardest hit Stennis employees were those living in the nearby communities of Slidell, La., and Bay St. Louis and Waveland, both located along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

Stennis Space Center, located about 24 kilometers inland along the Pearl River that separates Louisiana and Mississippi, fared better than many of its coastal neighbors. Some 3,700 local residents, mostly Stennis employees and their families, were sheltered at the center in buildings quickly converted into makeshift dormitories. The Federal Emergency Management Agency ran its recovery efforts for the entire Mississippi coast out of the facilities at Stennis.

Still, more than 150 buildings clustered on the sprawling Stennis campus suffered at least some damage from the hurricane-force winds and driving rain. Sixty-two of those buildings suffered damage NASA deemed moderate to severe, and will require more than $200 million to repair and strengthen them against future hurricanes.

But the more than $2 billion worth of rocket engine test facilities NASA built over 40 years ago to be robust enough to withstand a Saturn 5 failure made it through the storm unharmed.

Within 45 days of the hurricane, Stennis was back testing engines and most of the center’s work force, whether employed by NASA or one of the other more than 30 federal agencies located at the center, were back on the job.

Stennis Space Center Director Richard Gilbrech expects NASA’s primary rocket propulsion testing center will weather the changes ahead for the U.S. space agency every bit as ably as it weathered Katrina.

“The prospect of all of the work to be done under the Vision for Space Exploration is really boosting morale here,” Gilbrech said. “We are almost going back to an Apollo-style pace with the amount of testing that is going to be needed.”

Stennis owes its existence to the Apollo program. In October 1961, just five months after U.S. President John F. Kennedy set the goal of sending a man to the Moon before the end of the decade, the government announced that it would establish a national rocket test site in sparsely populated Hancock County in Mississippi.

When construction of the 5,460-hectare test facility began in 1963, it was one of the largest construction projects in the United States at the time, second only to Kennedy Space Center, which was taking shape in Florida. By April 1966, the Mississippi Test Facility — as it was then known — was open for business testing its first Saturn 5 rocket booster.

The test facility was renamed in 1988 to U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis upon his retirement from Congress. A staunch NASA supporter, Stennis played a big role in bringing the rocket-testing center to Mississippi, from working the Washington scene to talking five small local communities into relocating to make way for the center and its 50,600-hectare buffer zone — mostly forested land that serves as a natural acoustical buffer for rocket engine testing.

Gilbrech said the bigger buffer zone, water access and large test stands make Stennis the right place for NASA to test the propulsion systems its developing to carry astronauts and their equipment back to the Moon. “[NASA Administrator] Mike Griffin actually said this is the last place he’s got to test a large engine and large stages,” Gilbrech said.

During the Apollo years, the first stage of the Saturn 5 rockets, assembled nearby at the Michoud facility, were transported to Stennis for testing on barges through the Gulf of Mexico, up the Pearl River and directly to their test stands via man-made canals. Stennis continued to test Saturn 5 first and second stages into the early 1970s. Its test stands were then modified to support the testing of the Space Shuttle Main Engine, or SSME. Every SSME that has ever flown has been tested and proven flight-worthy at Stennis.

Today, the SSMEs tested at Stennis arrive on trucks, but the canals still have an important role to play in testing. Fuel-laden barges are floated up to the test stand to supply the SSME’s with the massive quantities of liquid oxygen and hydrogen they need to replicate the 8.5-minute burn they will need to perform during a space shuttle mission.

Miguel Rodriguez, director of the engineering and science directorate at Stennis, said the water access also would be vital down the road when NASA is ready to start testing the Crew Launch Vehicle’s upper stages, which, like the Saturn 5s, will be powered by J-2 engines, albeit a substantially updated version.

Rodriguez said SSME testing on Stand A-1 is set to wrap up this October. At that point, Stennis propulsion engineers and technicians will get started on the facility modifications needed to test the Crew Launch Vehicle’s J-2-based upper stage engine. He said test stand modifications are expected to take 18-24 months.

Sometime later — Rodriguez could not say exactly when — Stennis would begin modifying Stand B-2 to support full-stage testing for the Crew Launch Vehicle. Looking further into the future, Stennis officials expect to remain busy testing engines and stages for the unmanned heavy-lift rocket NASA wants to start developing before the middle of the next decade.

In addition to SSME testing, Stennis also tests — on a cost-reimbursable basis — RS-68 engines for Boeing’s Delta 4 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.

Unlike some of NASA’s other regional field centers, Gilbrech does not envision major work-force transition challenges for Stennis in the years to come. For starters, Stennis’ NASA work force is not all that large. Of the 4,500 employees who stream through the Stennis gates each morning, well over half work for government agencies other than NASA, including the U.S. Navy and the Department of Commerce. NASA itself has just 270 civil servants working at Stennis supported by 1,400 contractors.

“We don’t have near the issues Kennedy and others have because we are gearing up to do facility modifications and that can occupy these same test engineers in the interim before the hardware shows up,” Gilbrech said.

While Stennis may be best known for rocket propulsion testing, the center is also home to the Applied Research and Technology Program Office, a roughly 75-person remote sensing organization that traces its roots back to 1970 and the dawn of the Landsat program when NASA decided to locate its Earth Resources Laboratory at Stennis .

Robert Venezia, director of the Applied Science Directorate at Stennis, said the program’s role, like that of Earth science at NASA, has changed and evolved over the years. Today, Stennis is NASA’s lead center for commercial remote sensing applications, a job that Venezia said boils down to making sure NASA’s $1 billion-plus annual investment in Earth science helps federal, state and local operational agencies make decisions.

NASA’s Environmental Assurance Program, which monitors the agency’s compliance with environmental regulations, also is based at Stennis.

Last fall, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Stennis also won its bid to host the NASA Shared Services Center, which will consolidate a number of NASA business functions such as financial management and human resources into a single operation managed by contactor Computer Science Corp. The operation, which opened its doors in March, is expected to create about 500 new jobs in the area, further solidifying Stennis Space Center’s role as an engine of economic development for Southwestern Mississippi.

A March 2006 study conducted by Mississippi State University economist Charles A. Campbell concluded that NASA and Stennis Space Center’s other government tenants inject more than $500 million annually into the local economy. The indirect effects are even greater, according to Campbell’s study, with Stennis and its work force responsible for keeping some 19,700 jobs in the local area.

Comments: bberger@space.com