A fun and inexpensive way to entertain the kids
If you travel east on Interstate 10 heading to Mississippi, Alabama or Florida, you may have noticed a new, modern, steel-and-glass building just past the Louisiana/Mississippi state line. My family spends a lot of time in Pass Christian, Miss., so we’ve passed this building and have actually taken the exit countless times, but we had never ventured inside. Finally, curiosity got the best of my 9-year-old son, Beau, so we rounded up some of his buddies and took the approximately 45-minute drive to the INFINITY Science Center, the 75,000-square-foot visitors’ center at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.
The Stennis Space Center is one of 10 NASA facilities in the United States and is the second largest, occupying over 130,000 acres of land. Built in the 1960s as a rocket engine test site, the facility has tested the rockets for the Saturn V as well as all manned Apollo and space shuttle flights. Its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico made it easy for NASA to transport the large engines to and from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once the cargo made it to the Mississippi coast, it traveled up the East Pearl River to Stennis.
When we arrived at INFINITY, my group of excited boys quickly ran for the front door, but there’s actually plenty to see before you go inside. It would be hard to miss the H-1 and F-1 rocket engines, simply because they’re so huge! Clusters of these rockets were used to produce the 7.5 million pounds of thrust needed for the Apollo spacecraft to achieve lift-off.
Once inside, the first exhibit you’ll see is the “Science Express,” a maze where you travel through time from the early days of Egyptian civilization to current-day space exploration. The maze is interactive, so visitors make choices as they proceed. Some choices lead to more discoveries, others lead to dead ends. Next, you approach a circular theatre with a large globe suspended from the center of the ceiling. This globe is actually a blank screen on which four different projectors play amazing scenes of the Earth and other planets. There are many different programs, more than 200, which are shown on the sphere. The day we visited there was a fascinating demonstration of weather patterns and how they move across the Earth’s surface.
As we moved deeper into the building, the boys immediately spied what would turn out to be my gang’s unanimous favorite attraction: The Omega Flight Simulator. This 9,000-pound structure is more than 6 feet tall and 25 feet long and resembles a space shuttle. The approximately 5-minute ride utilizes the same technology NASA uses to train their astronauts. According to my amateur pilots, the flight simulator makes you feel like you have a front row seat while exploring space!
Then we took the glass elevator to the second floor where we found the “Space Gallery” containing a full-sized model of part of the International Space Station. A video tour describes different aspects of everyday life for our astronauts living in a space station. There are also many NASA artifacts on the second floor, including the space suit worn by Biloxi native and Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise.
Keeping an eye on the clock, I realized it was time for us to head outside and catch our bus for the approximately 20-minute bus tour of the Stennis Space Center. The bus tour is included in your admission, but make sure you sign up for a tour as they do fill up. This tour takes you into areas not accessible to the public. The tour guide explains that Stennis is like a little city with its own post office, hospital and over 5,000 employees. As you approach the test facility, the bus stops at the locks that regulate the water level of the East Pearl River, so that if the river goes above flood stage NASA doesn’t have to worry about the facility flooding. Soon the bus arrives at the structure that everyone has come to see: the test stands. Made with more steel than the Eiffel Tower and enough concrete to pave a sidewalk from Stennis to Memphis, Tenn., the test stands are simply enormous. Our tour guide allowed us to exit the bus and take pictures in front of the largest test stand, another highlight for the boys!
In just a few hours, we had not only had an amazing walk through history but also an inspiring glance into the future of space exploration. This is a one-day trip that the kids will enjoy as much as their parents and grandparents, so bring everyone and take advantage of this treasure in our neighboring state. For additional information, admission prices and hours of operation, visit VisitInfinity.com.