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Stennis Test Stands Face Scrutiny
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Stennis Space Center A-3 Test Stand construction site on Sep.25, 2012.
NASA

Two test stands at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center have been under scrutiny lately by NASA’s own inspector general.

"Right now we're in the A complex," News chief Rebecca Strecker points out three of the nine NASA test stands at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. "On the left that is the A-3 test stand, right in the forefront is the A-2 test stand, and further in the distance, that's the A-1 test stand"

The 300-foot tall A-3 stand is now almost done, even though the program it was started under, Constellation, was canceled in 2010.

Congress ordered the stand's completion anyway, at a cost of $57 million dollars, on top of the almost $300 million already spent.

Once it's done, the stand will be mothballed, at a cost of almost $900,000 a year.

"My frustration is that people say, 'Oh, NASA needs more money,'" says space policy analyst Rand Simburg of Interglobal Media. "But my answer is, no they don't, they could be doing a lot more with the money they have if Congress didn't force them to spend it on things that aren't going to get us into space. And a test stand for an engine that's been canceled is a perfect example of that."

In a report last year, NASA's auditor used the A-3 as an example of the trouble the space agency has reducing its infrastructure, in the face of a rapidly changing mission and political pressure.

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker said in a written statement that he wrote the amendment requiring the completion of the A-3 stand to ensure Stennis is prepared for changing technologies and demands.

Just last week, another test stand, the B-2, also faced scrutiny by the auditor. It's being refurbished for $350 million dollars, but the agency's auditor said the same work could be done elsewhere for less money and time.

NASA says it chose Stennis based on an overall analysis of cost, scheduling and transportation risks. Mississippi Fourth District Representative Steven Palazzo says Stennis was also a good choice because of its 125,000-acre buffer zone.

"When we weigh these decisions, it's not always just about cost," Palazzo said. "It's also about protecting the local communities and the men and women and families who live around these centers. So because of our buffer zone, and our history in rocket propulsion and testing, Stennis would have been, hands-down, the best choice."

Palazzo, who took office in 2011, is chairman of the House subcommittee on space and represents southern Mississippi, which includes Stennis.