BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (AP) — The future of NASA and space exploration begins in Mississippi, officials say, and with NASA's goal to return to the moon in 2019, Stennis Space Center is at the heart of the program.

"Man may go to the moon (again) one day, but they're going to have to pass through Hancock County to get there," Gov. Phil Bryant said.

Bryant was one of about 100 people who attended a RS-25 engine test Aug. 14 at Stennis, the first of 10 test fires for the first SLS project.

The center has been a NASA test site for more than 50 years, beginning with the Apollo missions that first put man on the moon.

"The engines that put Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon in 1969 were tested here," Bryant said. "And the next phase of the engines that will put man back on the moon or deeper into space were tested today."

In 1966, scientists at Stennis began testing the engines used to propel the Saturn V rockets that would carry man to the moon on the Apollo missions, with six successful lunar landings between 1969 and 1972.

The next phase of space flight saw the birth of the International Space Station, and NASA's launch of the space shuttle program.

The RS-25 engines were used at various times to launch the space shuttle for 34 years, from 1975 to 2009, when the program was discontinued.

"For several years we saw a decline in NASA, we saw the cancellation of the Constellation program," said Rep. Steven Palazzo, who chaired the NASA subcommittee for 5½ years. "There wasn't a lot of direction or stability for the program. Over the last several years, we've been trying to provide more funding to NASA.

"When I was chairman, one of our most important things was finding our roadmap. Where do we want to go? Then how do we get there and how do we pay for it? How do we build the equipment that's going to take us further and deeper into space?"

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said NASA's mission is to get astronauts back to the moon, and eventually prepare them for the longer missions to Mars. The SLS-adapted RS-25s are going to help them get there.

"The RS-25 represents America's ability to fly deeper into space than we've ever flown before," Bridenstine said. "This is the rocket engine that we are going to use as the core stage of the SLS rocket, which is the most powerful rocket that's ever been built, the biggest rocket that's ever been built with the exploration upper stage. Ultimately it's going to carry heavier payloads and bigger payloads than we've ever launched before."

The same 14 engines used to launch the space shuttles, along with two new RS-25s, are being modified for NASA's newest Space Launch System, enabling heavier loads and longer flights.

The two new RS-25 engines were added to the stable because the SLS rockets each require four RS-25s to launch. This allows NASA to have four launch mechanisms that can be used at any time to launch the Orion spacecraft.

Stennis this year will begin testing the SLS core stage — the simultaneous firing of four RS-25 engines — making sure the engines will launch correctly when used for manned missions.

The first crewed test flights are expected to begin in April, with two NASA astronauts flying to and from the International Space Station in SpaceX's Crew Dragon, using a Falcon 9 rocket to launch.

American astronauts have been traveling to the space station on Russian Soyuz rockets, which Bridenstine says will continue, but the U.S. needs to also be able to rely on its own capabilities for getting astronauts into space.

Once the test flights are determined successful, the first crewed mission to the moon will follow and the first crewed flight to Mars closely on its heels, possibly as early as 2020, Bridenstine said.

"We've got a lot on our plate right now and we are very excited," Bridenstine said.

When U.S. astronauts first went to the moon, they barely scratched the surface, he said.

"When they went, it was not sustainable," Bridenstine said. "It was flags and footprints, and when we came home, we never went back," he said. "This time when we go, we want every piece of architecture to be reusable, to drop costs, we want to take advantage of our international partners and our commercial partners to do more than we've ever done before."

The discoveries in 2008-09 of water-ice on the moon, put a new emphasis on returning there.

"We now understand there are hundreds of billions of tons of water-ice on the surface of the moon," Bridenstine said. "Water-ice not only represents life support, water to drink, air to breathe, it also represents propulsion."

Palazzo, said he is looking forward to NASA's new direction. He said Stennis' role in the SLS program will have an impact on Mississippi and the country "for generations to come."

"As the administrator (Bridenstine) said and we've been saying for a long time, we want to get off Russian reliance of taking American astronauts into space," he said. "We want to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil."

Bridenstine said it is important to invest in NASA's growth since nearly every part of American life is touched by NASA technology, he said, including weather forecasting, computer networks, cellphone towers, power grids and banking. Even farmers use NASA technology to grow food.

"If there's no banking, there's no milk in the grocery store and that can result in an existential threat to the United States of America," Bridenstine said. "When you think about the human condition on Earth, the way we communicate, the way we navigate, the way we produce food in this country ... the way we produce energy, the way we do national security and defense, the way we do disaster relief, the way we predict weather — 80 percent of that data comes from space.

"NASA blazed a trail that opened the frontier of space, and now it's been commercialized and democratized in a way that has changed the human condition for the good."

The SLS rocket engines are assembled by Aerojet Rocketdyne at Stennis Space Center. The company recently began incorporating 3-D printing technology to help reduce the cost of adapting the RS-25s to SLS capability.

And while the engines may be around 40 years old, the engine controller — the brains of the engine — has been upgraded to the latest available technology.

"Just like you're not using the same computer you were using five years ago, we're not using the same controller — or computer — we were using 20 or 30 years ago on the space shuttle main engine," said Dan Adamski, RS-25 program director.

Adamski said Aerojet Rocketdyne's newest goal is to reduce cost by at least 35 percent while improving performance, which the company was able to do, and expects to find ways to cut costs even more.

"That's what we're trying to do now is drive down costs while maintaining high reliability and high performance," he said.

NASA already has spent billions on the SLS program, but Bridenstine defends the expense. He said NASA's budget is less than one-half of 1 percent of the national budget, and is essential to the nation's security.

"NASA has hundreds of billions in assets in orbit and human lives in orbit, and space is so important to the human condition right now," he said. We are now at a point where if we were to lose face, it would be an existential threat to the United States of America."

For more information about Stennis Space Center, visit nasa.gov/centers/stennis.

For details on the Space Launch System, visit nasa.gov/sls.

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com