HANCOCK COUNTY, Miss. – NASA’s Stennis Space Center (SSC) experienced an eventful year in 2004, working to return the Space Shuttle to flight and celebrating major milestone anniversaries.

The year began with new leadership. SSC Center Director Adm. Thomas Q. Donaldson V, USN (Ret.) took the helm of the space center on Jan. 5, 2004. Adm. Donaldson was previously the Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, one of the more than 30 agencies on site as part of the “federal city” at SSC.

       Applause rang out in the StenniSphere auditorium Jan. 14 as employees watched President George W. Bush unveil the Vision for Space Exploration from NASA Headquarters in Washington. These goals include safely returning the Space Shuttle to flight and completing the International Space Station by 2010, and then developing a new spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle. The new craft will be used to return to the Moon by 2020, and forging on to Mars and worlds beyond.

Throughout the year, the Propulsion Test Directorate at SSC worked toward NASA’s first goal in completing the Vision for Space Exploration: returning the Space Shuttle to flight. The Shuttle Discovery’s three engines were tested and proven flight-worthy in 2004, passing final acceptance tests on March 26, July 16 and August 19.

On Oct. 5, SSC shipped the last of the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for installation on Space Shuttle Discovery for its STS- 114 mission. This mission, scheduled for late spring, is NASA’s return to flight after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.

“For almost 30 years, the safety and reliability of the Space Shuttle Main Engine has been demonstrated through testing at Stennis,” said Adm. Donaldson. “We can all watch Discovery lift off with the pride of a job well-done, and the confidence that those engines will perform as flawlessly as ever.”

In further Return to Flight preparations, SSC simulated conditions typical of Space Shuttle launch days to see what kinds of ice and frost form on the foam insulation of the super-cooled External Tank. Because debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia’s External Tank led to the loss of the orbiter, NASA initiated an effort to determine sources of debris that could impact the Shuttle orbiters and cause critical damage.

The experiment was conducted in a specially constructed facility. Just three weeks before foam test panels were delivered Oct. 27, the facility was an empty parking lot. A portable building was relocated to the site and then modified to accommodate equipment to control the temperature and humidity, and to monitor the tests. To simulate launch conditions, engineers at SSC mounted four 2-foot-by-2-foot panels on a metal frame, and then froze them with liquid helium or liquid nitrogen.

A landmark in the Space Shuttle program was achieved Jan. 21 at SSC: the 1 millionth second of successful testing and flight operations of the Space Shuttle Main Engine. The roar of the engine and its signature plume of water vapor began around 3:30 p.m. and ran for 8 ½ minutes, the length of time it takes three SSMEs to propel the Space Shuttle from liftoff to orbit.

Those in attendance included NASA Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight William Readdy , Space Shuttle Program Manager Bill Parsons, astronauts Jerry Ross and Chris Ferguson, Marshall Space Flight Center Director Dave King, Johnson Space Center Director Gen. Jefferson Howell, Kennedy Space Center Director Jim Kennedy, NASA program officers, civic leaders, school children and SSC employees and their families. Following the successful test, the astronauts presented SSC’s Test Control Center crew with commemorative plaques that included U.S. flags flown aboard Space Shuttle Columbia.

“This 1 millionth-second test is a testimony to the NASA and contractor team that developed, tested and continues to improve the SSME to safely take humans to low Earth orbit,” said Miguel Rodriguez, director of the Propulsion Test Directorate at SSC. “It is a huge sense of pride to the NASA and Boeing team that the engines, which SSC began testing in June 1975, have never experienced a major anomaly.”

While NASA plans a return to the Moon, SSC relived the excitement of the United States’ first Moon missions in the 1960s. July marked the 35th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first landing of humans on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Celebrations at StenniSphere, the visitor center at SSC, included an Apollo exhibit and the planting of a “Moon Tree” descended from seeds taken to the Moon and back by Apollo 14 astronaut and longtime Mississippi Gulf Coast resident Stuart Roosa.

     In August, SSC hosted legends of the space program with visits from Mercury Astronauts Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and the late Gordon Cooper, three of the NASA’s seven original astronauts, the group known for having “The Right Stuff.”  Accompanying the Mercury astronauts was Apollo Astronaut Al Worden, command module pilot for Apollo 15, the fourth lunar landing mission. The astronauts spoke about their missions, and their role in the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which raises funds to annually award a total of $170,000 to 17 college students who exhibit exceptional performance in science and engineering.

Shortly after the astronauts’ visit, Astronaut Cooper died at his home in Ventura, Calif., from natural causes. He was 77.

The pioneer astronauts’ trip was followed in October by a visit from NASA’s newest crop of space explorers. Members of NASA’s 2004 Astronaut Candidate Class were on hand to meet with employees and view a Space Shuttle Main Engine test firing at SSC. The 16 candidates, on a tour of NASA’s 10 centers, included three classroom teachers, as well as three astronauts from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Other projects at SSC are part of NASA’s larger scientific exploration of the Earth – to advance understanding of the Earth-Sun system, to bring the lessons of the study of Earth to the exploration of our solar system and to understand how our planet and star are changing.

NASA scientists in SSC’s Applied Sciences Directorate (ASD) participated in the Naval Research Laborartory’s Slope-to-Shelf Energetics and Exchange Dynamics (SEED) cruise in mid-November. While aboard, they used ASD’s optical instrument profiling package to take measurements and water samples at several locations in the Gulf of Mexico. The scientists will be able to use the measurements and samples to determine the Mississippi River plume’s influence on the Gulf’s waters.

With the new year, NASA employees at SSC look forward to the flight of Space Shuttle Discovery. Also upcoming is the appointment of a new head of NASA to replace Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who was recently named Chancellor of Louisiana State University. With the new goals of returning to the Moon and the development of a new spacecraft, 2005 promises to be an exciting year at SSC.