NASA officials update Stennis activities, contribution to area economy _lowres

Assoc iated Press photo by JOHN RAOUX -- The Orion crew module that will fly atop NASA's Space Launch System rocket is being processed at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The module was transported from the agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, which also has close ties to Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Turns out that Mark Watney’s extended stay on Mars wasn’t all that far-fetched.

“It was a great flick; really well-done,” Richard Gilbrech, director of NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center, said at a community forum Thursday, drawing parallels between NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s and “The Martian,” the 2015 film starring Matt Damon, as Watney. “A phenomenal job of what I call ‘science-fact’ as opposed to ‘science-fiction,’ ” Gilbrech added.

Thursday’s forum at the INFINITY Science Center in Pearlington, Mississippi, included brief remarks from a handful of NASA officials. They offered a crowd of more than two dozen — a mix largely of local community members and NASA contractors and employees — an update about the center’s activities and its ongoing part in the area’s economy.

Overall, NASA’s workforce at Stennis is estimated at 5,000 workers, including 2,000 civil servants and contractors. About 1,500 of the workers are from Louisiana.

In addition, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, situated on 832 acres in New Orleans East, has about 1,220 federal and private employees. Michoud is playing a key role developing NASA’s Space Launch System, a mega-rocket designed to transport astronauts into deep space, a goal of President Barack Obama’s administration.

Michoud’s Vertical Assembly Center, a three-story, 165-ton cylindrical welding machine, uses friction-stir welding to assemble the mega-rocket’s massive core stage.

With NASA working to develop the tools to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars not long after, Gilbrech said NASA researchers are preparing to test new systems and capabilities for spending an extended duration in space — perhaps more than two years. Stennis is NASA’s primary rocket propulsion testing ground.

In “The Martian,” Watney is left for dead by his fellow astronauts after a strong storm on Mars. A botanist and mechanical engineer by trade, he is able to overcome a series of challenges and setbacks, including fertilizing Martian soil with vacuum-packed waste to grow potatoes, which helps him to survive.

As it turns out, Gilbrech said, NASA researchers are studying ways to potentially grow food on Mars.

“We really have a monumental challenge to try to get to Mars and put humans on the surface of Mars in 2030,” he said.

Gilbrech also discussed that center’s transition since Syncom Space Services LLC — a joint venture of Virginia-based PAE and BWXT Nuclear Operations Group Inc. — recently began handling work for NASA at Stennis and Michoud. The $1.2 billion performance-based deal, which is expected to last about 10 years, is aimed at “eliminating a lot of duplication,” he said.

Syncom took over the work from Jacobs Technology, a Jacobs Engineering Inc. subsidiary.

Stennis also is in the final stages of redesigning and expanding its restricted air space, partly to support rocket engine testing at and near the space center, he said. That could “open up a whole new avenue of potential business.”

Stennis is home to the NASA Shared Services Center, the agency’s central hub for processing administrative services. Stennis hosts a number of federal, state, academic and private organizations and technology-based companies that share the cost of owning and operating the facility.

John Wilson, executive director of the INFINITY Science Center, offered an update on recent improvements to the site.

“Our job is simply to inspire and nurture curiosity so that the missions of these agencies will continue well into the future,” he said.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.