Joe Biden was ‘indebted’ to Stennis in 1985, now he should rename NASA’s space center in Mississippi

Joe Biden will become the next President of the United States on January 20, and the space community has questions. What does the new administration have planned for NASA’s Artemis program, how will the new commander-in-chief direct the U.S. Space Force, and will the Trump-revived National Space Council continue?

Another question to ask is how will a President Biden approach revisiting government facilities named after those with whom we do not share values. Biden will preside over renaming 10 military bases named after Confederate generals. This change gained bipartisan in Congress at the end of last year. What did not gain bipartisan support in 2020 is support for renaming NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

The Mississippi rocket engine test facility was named after the late U.S. Senator John C. Stennis through executive order from President Reagan in 1988.

Mr. Stennis used his position in Congress to keep the Mississippi facility remain open for business after NASA planned to retire it at the end of the Apollo program. The senator was also a proponent of racial segregation based on his statements and voting record on civil rights policy while in office.

The issue was raised to the level of gaining a response of opposition from top Republican across Mississippi last summer. Congressman Bennie G. Thompson, who supports renaming the space center, was not consulted before his colleagues in Congress released their statement.

Without support in Congress, Stennis Space Center is not likely to legally undergo a name change that reflects the values of the hardworking men and women of all races who work at the NASA facility. Prior to being named Stennis Space Center, the NASA facility was called the Mississippi Test Facility and National Space Technology Laboratories.

It was an executive order by a President three decades ago that gave us the current name, after all, so might we expect a President Biden to do the same through executive order? My guess is yes, and the decision should come fast.

Not unlike President Obama’s admiration for the late Senator Robert Byrd, President-elect Joe Biden shared admiration with the late Senator John Stennis. Biden declared that he was “indebted to Senator Stennis” in a 1985 birthday speech honoring his colleague.

That’s not to say that Joe Biden should be judged for the beliefs of John Stennis, although I’m not sure the praiseworthy words used in the speech hold up to scrutiny. Rather, it’s to say that the next President of the United States could meet the moment and remove the burden that hangs on NASA’s critical engine test facility.

Just three days before President-elect Biden becomes President Biden, Stennis Space Center will complete a tedious process in testing the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. This vehicle design will be used to send the first woman to the Moon under the Artemis program.

Given his personal connection with Senator Stennis, Biden may be best positioned to honor his friend and former colleague while also allowing NASA’s engine test facility in Mississippi to move forward without the weight of the past.

President Biden should commit to renaming the NASA facility in Mississippi before the first Artemis mission to the Moon that’s currently on track for November 2021. If President Biden chooses not to disband the Trump-assembled National Space Council, Vice President Kamala Harris would chair the group.

President Biden should ask Vice President Kamala Harris to set the criteria (preferably a non-white male who has not been properly honored in history) and lead the effort to choose a new name for the space center. And just ask Poppy Northcutt, there’s no shortage of candidates. She’s someone who would know.


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