Like most Mississip- pians in 1969, I had no idea that the path to the Moon and to victory in the space race went through Hancock Coun- ty, Mississippi. But it did.
The Stennis Space Center — then called the Mississippi Test Facility — was the ideal site for testing the Saturn V rock- et that sent Neil Arm- strong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on their journey. America is en- tering a new space race today, and Stennis is going to play a vital role again.
Much has changed since the 1960s. Back then, the space race was a Cold War battle be- tween the Soviet Union and the United States. There are more players now, including rivals like China. New technologies made possible by half a century of innovation make the lunar module look like an antique. And private spacefaring com- panies are blasting off, adding to the possibilities of exploration and en- terprise in space.
The economic opportu- nities of the commercial space sector have taken the spotlight. Now valued at $400 billion, experts anticipate it to grow to nearly $3 trillion over the next two decades. That is more than the gross do- mestic product of the United Kingdom. There were 35 commercial space launch and re-entry operations in 2018 licens- ed by the Federal Avia- tion Administration (FAA), up from just 17 in 2016.
This growth presents challenges. Scientists and entrepreneurs are cre- ating new and different flight operations, safety systems and propulsion technology every year, making it necessary for today’s workforce to master concepts that might not have existed or even been imagined a short time ago. The fact that many of the people who do have these skills are at or near retirement age only increases the urgency. With the accel- eration of commercial space operations and future launches already scheduled, the FAA will need to do more to en- sure that its staff is pre- pared.
Keeping pace with these developments will require ongoing recruit- ment, education and training. As the nation’s premier rocket propul- sion test facility and home of NASA’s Engi- neering and Test Directo- rate, Stennis is the best- positioned facility in the world to get America’s workers ready for liftoff.
To make sure the FAA and Stennis are equipped for this task, I have in- troduced the Licensing Innovations and Future Technologies in Space (LIFTS) Act. The LIFTS Act would create a facil- ity at Stennis to train and retrain commercial space licensing professionals. It would provide the hands- on experience necessary to make sure the com- mercial space sector remains dynamic and safe.
Under the LIFTS Act, Stennis would soon be- come the focal point for an effort involving NASA, the FAA, the commercial space industry and aca- demia to modernize and update commercial spaceflight licensing training programs. The lessons learned at Stennis would then reverberate to partners around the globe, teaching them about what works and does not work in com- mercial space licensing.
Stennis Space Center has set the course for rocket engine testing operations since the first space race. During the entire Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, no engine tested at Stennis ever failed a mission. That legacy continues, and NASA uses Stennis to test the RS-25 engines that will put the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024.
The path to the Moon will once again go through Hancock Coun- ty, Mississippi. But some- thing unimaginable when I was young — a thriving private commercial space sector — is ready to take off as well. That will be thanks in large part to the Magnolia State and the hard work of the Mis- sissippians at Stennis Space Center.
Roger Wicker represents Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. He is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
This op-ed was orginally ran in the Sun Herald.