Campaign to Rename Stennis Space Center Kicks Off

Campaign to Rename Stennis Space Center Kicks Off

A campaign kicked off today to rename NASA’s Stennis Space Center as the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers continue to raise societal awareness of racial disparities. Stennis is named after John C. Stennis (1901-1995), a segregationist U.S. Senator from Mississippi where the Center is located. Separately, NASA announced today it is naming its headquarters building after Mary Jackson, the first African American woman engineer to work at the agency.

Will Pomerantz. Credit: Virgin Orbit.

The effort to rename Stennis Space Center is being led by Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s Vice President for Special Projects. He is also a co-founder of the Brooke Owens Fellowship, dedicated to career advancement for women and other gender minorities in the aerospace profession.

In a long series of tweets today (@Pomerantz), he urged that Stennis be renamed, perhaps in honor of Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space although other names popped up as well.

An effort is similarly underway to rename the Navy’s U.S.S. John C. Stennis aircraft carrier.  It and NASA’s Center were both named for Stennis by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

Pomerantz begins by calling on members of the space community to learn about Stennis and what he represented.

He goes on to point out that NASA’s nine field centers around the country are “named for white men. 2 Presidents (Kennedy, Johnson); 2 heads of agencies (Ames/NACA, Langley/Smithsonian); 2 astronauts (Glenn, Armstrong); 1 pioneer of rocketry (Goddard); 1 cabinet member (Marshall); and 1 segregationist US senator (Stennis).”

NASA has other facilities as well, and one was named after Katherine Johnson just last year — the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification & Validation Facility in West Virginia.  Johnson is one of the women immortalized in the book and movie “Hidden Figures” about her work as a human computer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the early days of the human spaceflight program.  The street in front of NASA Headquarters was renamed Hidden Figures Way last year.

Pomerantz goes on to capture the highlights of Stennis’ voting history on racial issues.

Noting the effort to rename the aircraft carrier, he calls on NASA and the space community to “have a similar discussion of our own.”

In a statement, NASA responded that the agency is dedicated to advancing diversity, but did not agree or disagree with the idea of renaming the Center.

As it so happens, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced today that the agency is naming its headquarters building in Washington, D.C. after Mary W. Jackson, the first African-American female engineer whose contributions also have come to light as part of the Hidden Figures story.

Renaming NASA facilities is nothing new. As Pomerantz points out, Stennis originally was called Mississippi Test Operations, then Mississippi Test Facility, and then National Space Technology Laboratories before it gained the Stennis name. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH previously was Lewis Research Center. It was renamed in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, an Ohio native, in 1999.

Armstrong Flight Research Center was the NASA Flight Research Center. In 1976, it was renamed Dryden Flight Research Center after Hugh Dryden, a renowned aeronautical engineer. NASA renamed it again in 2014 after Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, after his death in 2012. Armstrong had been a test pilot there early in his career when it was part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which Dryden once headed, and called the High-Speed Flight Station.

Johnson Space Center near Houston, TX originally was the Manned Spacecraft Center. It was renamed after President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973.  Kennedy Space Center originally was the Launch Operations Center, but in 1963 was renamed for President John F. Kennedy one week after his assassination.

In a press release about naming NASA Headquarters for Mary Jackson, Bridenstine said today:

“NASA facilities across the country are named after people who dedicated their lives to push the frontiers of the aerospace industry. The nation is beginning to awaken to the greater need to honor the full diversity of people who helped pioneer our great nation. Over the years NASA has worked to honor the work of these Hidden Figures in various ways, including naming facilities, renaming streets and celebrating their legacy. …. We know there are many other people of color and diverse backgrounds who have contributed to our success, which is why we’re continuing the conversations started about a year ago with the agency’s Unity Campaign. NASA is dedicated to advancing diversity, and we will continue to take steps to do so.”  — Jim Bridenstine

It seems that Pomerantz’ campaign is perfectly timed.  As he said in his tweets:

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