BILOXI, MS (WLOX) – They gathered to honor an American hero who hails from Biloxi.
"Today, we're honoring a true space pioneer," said Gene Goldman, Director of Stennis Space Center. "He's a living example of what you can do in life if you dream big and dare to try amazing things."
On Wednesday, about 200 students, parents, and community leaders celebrated the space career of former astronaut Fred Haise.
"The son of Mississippi that we honor today knows something about overcoming challenges and achieving his dream," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.
Bolden presented Haise with an award, praising his amazing accomplishments, especially his courage and performance during the historic Apollo 13 mission. The flight was crippled by an explosion.
Haise and his crew successfully guided the spacecraft back to Earth. That dramatic 1970 mission was featured in books and a movie.
"It is my honor and pleasure to give this Ambassador of Exploration Award to Fred W. Haise, Jr.," Bolden announced.
The award is a moon rock that's the size of an olive. Recipients of the award normally donate it to universities or museums. But Haise chose to present his prize to Gorenflo Elementary School in east Biloxi.
"This Ambassador of Exploration Award is a great honor, particularly so to receive it here," Haise said. "This is where I started my education. I hate to admit it, but it was 1939."
That was 70 years ago. Biloxi's School Superintendent thanked Haise for keeping Gorenflo so close to his heart.
"Thank you for bringing a piece of space to our space, and thank you for proving that dreams come true," Dr. Paul Tisdale said.
The encased moon rock is now on permanent display in the school's "Imagination Station." It is surrounded by other awards, space memorabilia, and video equipment. They were all donated by Mr. Haise.
"Like a lot of honors, this one I think is labeled sort of a lifetime achievement. But I don't plan to stay in my rocking chair," Haise said with a smile.
"Nothing would make him happier than being here at home, then be able to read one day that one of you sitting in this audience was part of a crew that went to the moon, or even better, went to Mars. So set your sights really big," Bolden told the children.
Haise currently lives in Houston. He also has a home in Gautier. He has been very active lately in raising money for the Infinity Science and Education Center near Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.