Rising from the smoke and flames of the latest rocket engine test is the INFINITY Science Center, the Gulf Coast’s newest attraction and learning experience. Located at the first exit in Mississippi going east on I-10, the center replaces the StenniSphere as the Stennis Space Center’s visitor center and museum.
INFINITY brings the best of three generations together. First, the engineers and astronauts of the 1960s and ’70s who paved the way for space exploration, fulfilling in less than 10 years President Kennedy’s 1961 promise of putting a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to earth. Then there’s the generation who were gape-mouthed kids planted firmly in front of the nation’s TV sets as they watched those American pioneers begin their giant leaps into space. And now their children, who grew up during the era of a hundred-plus Space Shuttle launches, as the miracle of freeing ourselves from the bounds of earth’s relentless gravity became almost routine.
With the final launch of the Space Shuttle in 2011, and the next planned U.S. human space launch system tests set for 2016, it’s imperative that this current generation have something that will help keep them connected to space and the opportunities it offers.
That’s where INFINITY comes in. In the works for more than seven years, the center opened April 11, 2012—not an insignificant date. It’s the anniversary of astronaut (and INFINITY board vice chairman) Fred Haise’s memorable Apollo 13 launch in 1970. Though he was slated to pilot the lunar module and become the sixth man to walk on the moon, an oxygen tank explosion scuttled the mission. The heroic actions taken by the crew and ground-control personnel to bring Haise and his fellow astronauts safely home were dramatized in Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13.
Haise, a Biloxi native, has been involved with INFINITY’s development since its inception. He explains that after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, security at Stennis was tightened, making it more difficult for the public to access the StenniSphere at its location deep within the campus. Visitors could not drive directly to the StenniSphere, but had to board buses at the Mississippi welcome center and rest area to tour Stennis’ rocket-testing facilities and visit the StenniSphere.
“The actual brainstorming on the new center was initially done by Leo Seal, who was head of Hancock Bank,” says Haise. “His father had a lot to do with the acquisition of land to build the Mississippi Test Center, which became Stennis Space Center.” Roy Estess, who was the director of Stennis for many years, and Myron Webb, who was head of public affairs, were also involved from INFINITY’s beginning, as was Tommy Munro of Munro Petroleum.
Haise continues, “NASA took the first steps and acquired the land. We have a 30-year land-use agreement with NASA for the property. It’s very similar to the arrangement made for Space Center Houston at the Johnson Space Center. From there, under the leadership of Mr. Seal, a not-for-profit board was set up, of which I’m vice chairman. This board’s mission was to raise the money to build it and to operate it, which is where we are today.”
The first thing visitors see is a large sculpture of an eagle, carved from a single tree and incorporating metal used in the test stands at Stennis and in rocket engines used to propel the space shuttle into orbit around the earth. Soaring over the walkway leading from the parking lot to the center, the sculpture, by artist Marlon Miller, features a plaque with Haise’s likeness and text recounting his accomplishments.
While Stennis is mainly known for its spaceflight connection, the 125,000-acre federal facility is also home to several agencies and contractors, including the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command and the Navy’s Special Boat Team TWENTY-TWO. Exhibits at INFINITY’s entrance reflect that, mingling with two massive rocket engines used in the Apollo program, equally massive buoys used by Stennis’ oceanographers and one of the riverine patrol boats used by the special ops naval team.
One of the rocket engines is an example of the most powerful ever built, an F1 engine designed by NASA’s Wernher von Braun. Five of these engines, each 18 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, powered the first stage of the Saturn V moon rockets. Altogether, they burned 15 tons of fuel per second while driving the almost-seven-million pound vehicle to a speed of 6,000 miles an hour and an altitude of 36 miles.
Haise, via a video presentation, greets visitors as they enter the center. While the exhibits are geared toward “science” in general, the main goal is to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and, hopefully, Mars-bound astronauts. The first exhibit, Great Nations Dare to Explore, helps accomplish that by leading visitors on a maze-like tour featuring interactive displays that examine how different cultures have set about exploring the world around them.
Starting with the Egyptians, visitors wind their way through passages containing displays of artifacts and dioramas, sometimes dead-ending as the culture being examined (the Vikings, for example) either ceased to exist or stopped sending out explorers into the world. Linda McCarthy, of the Hancock Chamber of Commerce, which markets and manages the center, says, “The coolest thing about the exhibit is that you can touch, hear and even smell things that will throw you back in time through the experience. Each one of the areas has at least one of these features. A display box contains replicas of artifacts.”
Following the exploration of Egypt, China and beyond, the visitor continues into the development of flight, from the Wright brothers to our first forays into space. “We’re examining where humans have gone, where we’d like to go and the possible future of space exploration. While we have been exploring space, there is still a long way to go,” says McCarthy, adding, “Mars is the ultimate goal.”
Next up are demonstrations of Stennis’ multi-tasking place in NASA’s Applied Sciences Program. Using the latest technology, a multimedia touch screen showcases the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Nation Coastal Data Development Center and its Gulf of Mexico project. Exhibits closely examine the effect of weather and changing sea levels on the coastline and coastal marshes. “Visitors can come through and explore what it is NOAA does and how the information they’ve developed is being used. They can see different sea creatures, the variety of life in the ocean and how scientists explore the undersea world,” says McCarthy. “It’s really a great system because for any age it’s both educational and entertaining. The 8-year-olds play with sea creatures, and teenagers get engrossed by the sea exploration presentations.”
A theater that’s very much “in the round” features Science on a Sphere, a giant sphere suspended in the middle of the space that serves as a projection screen for any number of presentations. “It’s actually the first spherical movie screen in the country,” McCarthy says. “It had been at the StenniSphere for a couple of years, and we’re lucky to have it; it’s probably one of our most popular exhibits. We can do a number of different things with the unique screen, and we can actually control it with an iPad or a Wii control system.”
Up Into Space
Scale-model Apollo rockets tower over an atrium with a curving staircase and elevator leading to the second-floor exhibits. It is here that the exciting early days of human space exploration are celebrated side-by-side with present-day technologies and some glimpses into future plans.
Greeting visitors is a wall of more than 100 mission patches donated by the individuals who reproduced them in needlepoint, one from almost every U.S. spaceflight mission. “To have dedicated all of that time and effort and then donate them is incredible. My favorite is the Apollo 13 mission,” McCarthy notes. “It’s exceptional work.”
Adults who as kids watched the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and early Space Shuttle missions will get a kick from seeing Wernher von Braun’s office re-created at INFINITY. McCarthy says, “Dr. von Braun had an office at Stennis Space Center. The tower that’s at the old visitor’s center was actually his office. He could easily see the test stands from the viewing windows there. We call him the father of the modern rocket engine. He was responsible for the F1 engines for the Saturn program—that huge engine on display outside. If it weren’t for his engine design, it could have taken a lot longer to get to the moon, and maybe we would not have met our goals.”
A space suit worn by Fred Haise, on loan from the Smithsonian, is displayed next to a video presentation on Apollo 13. Visitors unfamiliar with the mission’s harrowing tale can learn about it through the presentation, told in part through TV news clips from 1970.
A reproduction of the first rocket of the modern age, Robert Goddard’s liquid-fueled invention, stands near a sample from the farthest reaches of human spaceflight to date: a sample of rock from the moon brought back from one of the Apollo missions.
Rounding out the spaceflight exhibit are displays which show the evolution of food brought into space, from inedible-looking freeze-dried, vacuum-packed packets and MRE-type entrees to what scientists and engineers hope will be the future for any moon base or Mars mission explorers: aeroponically grown produce nurtured by precise artificial light with water and nutrients delivered to the plants by a spray of fine mist. The stacks of different butter lettuce varieties grown at INFINITY are periodically harvested—they grow fast; from seed to harvest in a matter of three to four weeks—and served to visitors.
Getting a feel for what it would be like to live and work aboard the International Space Station is possible when touring a reproduction of the Destiny module, the U.S. laboratory that also serves as a control station for the ISS’s robot arm.
Though the center’s INFINITY Café has a permanent presence by Domino’s to assure a steady supply of pizza for the kids, it is the serving area set up to feature different regional restaurants that brings a unique
and appetizing offering. “Five of our local restaurants take turns presenting menu favorites, a different one each day. This brings a sampling of the best of our local cuisine to visitors and staffers alike,” says McCarthy. In the brief time the center has been opened, it’s become a favorite for workers at Stennis looking for a quick lunch getaway.
McCarthy notes that INFINITY is intended to be more than an educational destination. It’s also a corporate meeting place and an event facility capable of hosting large crowds for receptions. “In addition to the five classrooms downstairs, we have four meeting rooms on the second floor that we rent. Response has been tremendous. Companies based at Stennis can hold meetings here offsite, which makes sense as their guests won’t have to drive from the interstate to the security checkpoints.”
More exhibits are in the works, and fundraising efforts continue. Haise is very excited about INFINITY’s next phase, called the Earth Gallery, which is highly interactive. He explains, “Visiting children will come on field-trip missions tailored by their teachers to fit their current class curricula. Originally designed by engineers and scientists at Stennis, the missions can be fine-tuned by teachers with the assistance of outreach training from NASA staffers. It will be a capstone to what they’ve been doing in the classroom.” Haise adds, “I think that’s very exciting. There’s no other museum in the country that’s orchestrated this way—directed to science learning to enhance what they get in the classrooms.”
That INFINITY offers opportunities to learn about earth sciences such as oceanography and meteorology and combines this with a celebration of NASA’s 50 years in space is important to Haise. “Here are magnificent things that have been done in all fields that can put a spark in children’s heads—‘maybe I can do some exciting things.’ Not necessarily in space, because not everyone can be an engineer or scientist, but to take advantage of what talent they have in a field that is best for them.”
INFINITY Science Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Located right off I-10, at Miss. Exit 2 (South), next to the Mississippi Welcome Center near the Miss.-La. border. (228) 533-9025. Adults (18-54), $8; seniors (55+), military and children (6-17), $6; 5 and under, free. Ticket price includes a free bus tour of NASA Stennis Space Center.Filed under: Front Page Feature, Getaways, History, July-August 2012, Northshore History, Travel