AmericaSpace was given an exclusive preview of the new INFINITY Science Center, located near John C. Stennis Space Center, which will be opening to the public for the first time on Thursday, April 12, after a ribbon cutting ceremony the preceding day.
Inspiring the minds of nearly 300,000 students per year is the blueprint for the new INFINITY Science Center, which is hosting its grand opening this week. INFINITY replaces the now-closed StenniSphere which previously served as the visitor center for the John C. Stennis Space Center in southwestern Mississippi.
“The goal for INFINITY is to engage and educate, to spur that sense of wonder and curiosity that took Christopher Columbus across the ocean and put me in a rocket to the moon,” said Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, who has been instrumental in garnering support for the science center. “Hundreds of thousands of students will visit INFINITY. Either on school tours or as part of family vacations. They will be able, many for the first time, to experience the wonder of science. And hopefully INFINITY’s mission-oriented experiences will undoubtably awaken curiosity in many of these young visitors and for some lead to careers in the very fields science and engineering which our nation’s future security depends on.”
A wood and metal sculpture of an eagle created by Gulf Coast artist Marlin Miller greets visitors as they drive into the parking lot of INFINITY. The eagle is a complement to the many sculptures Miller created out of dead tree trunks and donated to numerous communities after the Gulf Coast region was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“That tree (used in the sculpture) was actually killed during Katrina,” said Paul Foerman, a NASA public affairs officer at Stennis. “The metal that is in that came from our tests stands as well as turbine blades from a Space Shuttle main engine that flew in space.”
A computerized outdoor fountain and covered pavilion draws the attention of visitors even before they reach the main doors. Before entering the facility the public is able to get up close to engines used to power the first stage of the Saturn 1B and Saturn V rockets as well as a pair of ocean buoys utilized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Data Buoy Center at Stennis.
Upon entering the interior of the science center, visitors are greeted by a video of Haise. The first floor features Great Nations Dare to Explore, a 4,000-square foot maze that has visitors working their way through displays in time from early Egypt to present day and even to a future of human colonies on Mars. The exhibit is on a long-term loan from Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
After exiting the maze, visitors come upon Science Express where they can see how the many agencies at Stennis contribute to scientific progress on Earth with displays such as an el Niño buoy and a digital atlas with real-time data. Within its own its theater-style space, the Science on a Sphere uses animated images projected from four sides unto a globe to showcase adventures to the sun, moon, Mars or Jupiter, as well as highlighting the Earth’s atmosphere, including weather systems and airline flight paths. Science on a Sphere, which was a popular feature at the former visitor center, has 400 data sets which can be displayed upon it.
After existing Science Express, visitors can gaze upon scale models of the Saturn 1B and Saturn V rocket, as well as a Mercury capsule and a Space Shuttle.
On the second floor, visitors are able to walk through a full-sized International Space Station module and learn about the everyday life of astronauts who currently live and work nearly 250 miles above the Earth, with a video tour guided by former NASA astronaut Scott Altman. The Destiny module mockup was provided by Kennedy Space Center. Located just steps away is a cut-away display of the Orion Crew Capsule that will carry humans into deep space in the future, and the Rocket Engine Boom Box which brings to life the sights and sounds of a rocket engine test like those conducted nearby at Stennis.
Next to the Destiny module is a hydroponics growth chamber which would be used for long duration spaceflight. At INFINITY, the produce grown will be for more than just display. “The plan is to take the lettuce from here and provide it to the restaurant downstairs so that they can serve Space Lettuce,” said Foerman.
The Space Gallery also features a range of space-related artifacts, such as the space suit worn by Haise while training for the Apollo 13 mission; furniture from the office of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who led America’s early race to the moon; a full-sized Goddard rocket, the world’s first liquid field rocket launched way back in 1926, and a scale model of Space Shuttle Endeavour.
“One of the last things we are going to have here is a replica of the Space Mirror at Kennedy Space Center,” Foerman said. “It will be one of the last thing visitors see as they are finishing up.”
Many of the exhibits already in place at INFINITY have come from StenniSphere. However, not all the exhibits from there are making the move to the new $42 million science center. The flown-in-space Apollo 4 capsule is staying behind as is the Space Shuttle landing simulator. In the case of the Apollo 4 capsule, it is not moving because the doors at INFINITY are not wide enough to accommodate the historic space vehicle. The items will not be related to darkness though as Stennis Astro Camps and some conferences will continue to be held at the former StenniSphere location. Although Foerman stated that the kids’ camp eventually may move into INFINITY.
The science center will continue to add new exhibits to the Space Gallery in the future. Plans are to eventually add a large Earth Science gallery on the first floor once additional funds have been raised to create the exhibits. For now the spacious open area will be used for large gatherings, such as this week’s ribbon cutting ceremony.
For the teachers, INFINITY has a NASA Educator Resource Center which will be offering free educational materials and teacher workshops. Conference rooms also are available on the upper level.
“INFINITY tremendously enhances the image of Mississippi,” said Haise, a native of nearby Biloxi, Miss. “Most everyone has heard of Kennedy Space Center or Johnson Space Center because those are where we have launched and commanded space missions. But Stennis Space Center is where this nation perfected the engines that got us into space. I bet most of America does not know that the largest rocket test facility in the United States is right here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and has been since the 1960s.”
Stennis Space Center was founded to test the powerful rocket engines that would carry men to the moon and has been test firing rocket engines ever since. The NASA center now hosts a plethora of federal, state and educational agencies along with numerous private high tech companies and corporations such as Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce. Stennis also is home base for the largest concentration of oceanographers in the world, all working with the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.
Bringing INFINITY to reality has been a long and complicated process. The construction of the science center has been a collaboration between the non-profit foundation with numerous local and state governments and federal agencies.
Former Stennis Space Center Director Roy Estess and Bay St. Louis businessman Leo W. Seal, Jr. came together to initiate a study to consider moving the visitor and educational center off the grounds of the NASA center in 1999. A non-profit foundation was formed in 2001. The following year NASA purchased the 199 acres of land upon which the science center now rests. The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources entered into a collaboration regarding 1,200 adjoining acres for environmental experiences.
In 2003, a design firm was hired to develop the exhibits of the science center in collaboration with NASA, Navy, NOAA, USGS, EPA and other agencies. Another feasibility study was conducted the following year as well as the approval of the architectural and exhibition designs.
Progress was briefly slowed after Hurricane Katrina came ashore in 2005. However, the following year, the Mississippi Legislature earmarked $6 million for INFINITY. Efforts also began to seek donations from corporations, foundations and individuals. During 2007, the non-profit was awarded $500,000 funds from the Department of the Interior via Mississippi State University. The state legislature also raised its appropriation for the center to $10 million. NASA gave $5.2 million for infrastructure development in 2008.
With the infrastructure development completed in 2009, construction was ready to get underway, meanwhile the Mississippi Department of Transportation committed $2.1 million to build a road to the science center. The construction contract was awarded in 2010 with the road and building construction both starting the same year. The Mississippi Legislature increased total appropriations for INFINITY to $12.5 million. By the end of 2011 all major construction was completed and the opening of the center was set for early spring in 2012.
“It is exciting that INFINITY is now a reality,” Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said. “This state-of-the-art facility will ignite the imaginations of children and adults alike and will educate residents and visitors about Mississippi’s important contributions to space exploration. All who helped bring this spectacular addition to our Mississippi Gulf Coast are to be commended.”
INFINITY is located adjacent to I-10, near the border of Louisiana and Mississippi and makes for an easy day-trip from New Orleans, Mobile or Hattiesburg. The nearly 200-acre campus is adjacent to the Mississippi Welcome Center, right off the interchange of Interstate 10 and Mississippi Exit 2 South (Hwy 607).
“There’s 12 million cars which go down I-10 every year and we’re hoping that a good percentage will be inspired to come in here,” said Foerman. Just as important to get through the doors of INFINITY will be the 296,000 primary and secondary school-age children living within a 75-mile radius of the state’s second science center.
The center will hold a ribbon cutting on Wednesday morning. Among those scheduled to speak at the event are Haise, Gov. Bryant, U.S. Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, U.S. Representative Steven Palazzo, NASA Chief of Staff David Radzanowski, NASA Stennis Director Patrick Scheuermann and Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel.
Beginning Thursday, INFINITY will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission to the center is affordably priced at just $8 for adults (age 18-54) and $6 for seniors (age 55 and above), military personnel, and children (ages 6-17). Children under age 5 are admitted free. The admission also includes a free bus tour (available three different times of the day) of Stennis including a viewing of several of the immense rocket engine test stands. Visit www.visitinfinity.com to learn more.