Stennis sees bright future, despite shuttle program ending

HANCOCK COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Workers at Stennis Space Center were certainly beaming with pride as they watched Space Shuttle Atlantis lift off Friday morning.

Stennis is NASA's main rocket motor engine test facility. Workers at the Hancock County facility have tested and flight certified every rocket motor that has blasted a shuttle into space.

The decision to retire the shuttle fleet and the engines that power them stirred a lot of emotions.

When Bessie West opened her boiled peanut stand 20 years ago near the Stennis main gate, the test stands at Stennis were in full operation. She's optimistic that NASA's next generation of rocket motors will be tested at Stennis.

"It could open doors for other things to happen. And it may end up being a really good thing," West said.

Louisiana resident Iris Coxwell is one of hundreds of people who watched the historic launch on a theater size screen at Stennis.

"It's an end of an era, but not the end of the journey," she said.

After the launch, she hopped into a mock-up of the space shuttle and tried her hand at landing it.

"It was a special occasion for my son and I because this is the last shuttle launch. So we thought it would be kind of a momentous day to spend it here at Stennis Space Center," Coxwell explained.

"Watching a chapter in a book close in the U.S. space program, it's kind of sad. So it's somewhat bittersweet," said John Stealey, who is the Associate Director of Stennis' Engineering Department.

Stealey said in spite of the fact that the retiring shuttle main engines won't be tested here, Stennis' future role with NASA is bright.

"There's a couple of different fronts that we're working on. One is the commercial space enterprises, testing their engines, their propulsion systems," Stealey said. "We've got a couple of more space act agreements, basically contracts with other companies. So we are rather busy today. Other centers might be gearing down after the shuttle lands, we're really gearing up."

Although the retired space shuttle fleet will no longer fly, you can still get an up close look at them. They will be shipped and displayed at museums and educational institutions around the nation.

Copyright 2011 WLOX. All rights reserved.