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This NASA facility, long an anchor in the nation’s space program, has gotten a new lease on life with the announced construction of a giant rocket-engine test stand that will help return Americans to the moon and eventually help them reach Mars.

NASA officials announced Tuesday that Stennis has been selected to build a $175 million stand to test new J-2X engines, which will power Ares 1 and Ares V rockets as part of the Constellation Program.

The stand will loom 300 feet above the Stennis landscape and will be completed in time for the first J-2X engine test, scheduled for December 2010. In addition to the new construction, an existing test stand at Stennis will be modified to test the J-2X at sealevel conditions.

Ares 1 is a key component to the Constellation Program. It will launch the Orion Spacecraft and take astronauts to the International Space Station no later than 2015. By 2020, it will be carrying humans back to the moon.

Local and national officials expressed relief Tuesday that Stennis was chosen over two competing sites for the new test stand. Richard Gilbrech, director of Stennis Space Center, said the Constellation Program will assure additional decades of prosperity for the center, which became known for engine testing during NASA’s Apollo series in the 1960s.

“The Apollo-era test stands have served us well over the last 40 years, and I’m excited that NASA will have a new stand to take us into the next 40 years as we aspire to return to the moon and eventually land a human on Mars,” Gilbrech said.

“The new test stand will allow Stennis Space Center to continue its historically significant role in NASA’s rocket-engine testing and remain a prominent hub of technical activity and skilled jobs in Mississippi,” U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran said.

U.S. Sen. Trent Lott said the project “helps cement Stennis Space Center’s future as the nation’s premier rocket-testing facility.”

No contractor has yet been selected for the project, but the spinoff in jobs and benefits is likely to be significant for communities in South Mississippi and Southeast Louisiana.

The project will be a quartermile south of the existing A-1 Test Stand at Stennis. Construction will take place on 25 acres next to the test site’s access canal, which connects to the Pearl River and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico.

The test stand will allow NASA scientists and engineers to simulate conditions at various altitudes and test the J-2X’s ability as a second-stage engine for Ares I and an earthdeparture-stage engine for the Ares V cargo launch vehicle. The test stand will produce 4,620 pounds of steam per second to reduce the engine testcell pressure.

A new control center, access roads and propellant-barge docks will be built along with the test stand. The facility will test rocket engines capable of 300,000 pounds of thrust with a simulated altitude of 100,000 feet.

The project requires approval from various agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and the state’s Department of Marine Resources.

The Stennis location won out over other test-stand structures that were evaluated in Tullahoma, Tenn., and Sandusky, Ohio. NASA experts decided those facilities would be viable for only one or two years, while the Stennis stand will be useful throughout the life of the Constellation Program.

NASA reports issued on the project said the location decision was “heavily influenced” by the enormous Stennis buffer zone, which covers thousands of acres around the center and allows for engine testing without threatening nearby communities.

An environmental assessment issued by NASA said the agency expects the project to have “no significant impact” on the environment, cultural or historic resources, or endangered species and critical habitats.

Contract specifications for bids have not yet been issued, but should be released soon. “Since we’ve gotten approval, we will be releasing requirements for bids any day now,” said Paul Foerman, NASA news chief at Stennis.