Stennis chief has local ties

Published 10:17 pm Saturday, January 10, 2009

Growing up in St. Bernard Parish, little did Patrick Scheuermann realize the impact the newly developing 14,000 acre John C. Stennis Space Center across the Pearl River would have on his life.

Instead, life just outside the Louisiana bayous for him was simple and pleasant, as it was for many kids growing up in early 70s. He went to school, rode his bike and played ball with his friends. At night, when he looked to the stars glittering in the heavens, he never dreamed his path in life would lead him to not only almost touch them, but be the person responsible for putting men and women among them safely.

First. though, he’d have to go through Mississippi.

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Last month Scheuermann, a former Pearl River County resident, and who is married to Sarah (Lee) from the Caesar community, was named deputy director at Stennis Space Center. Getting there has been nothing short of an adventure for Scheuermann, a journey that he would not trade for anything. “I love what I do,” he said about his years with NASA, his promotion, and the space program. “I always want to aspire to be good, and I am honored to be considered for the promotion. The bottom line is sometimes you got to pinch yourself.”

Scheuermann’s career that would lead to him to be second in command of one of the country’s largest space centers began within days of his graduating from the University of New Orleans with a degree in mechanical engineering. It was 1986 and the shuttle missions had been headline news for a number of years. That year, the space program had been in the news more than even the first flight a mere five years earlier.

That year, in January, the space shuttle Challenger, carrying six astronauts and the first participant of the School Teachers in Flight program, Christa McAuliffe, exploded 73 seconds into flight as it lifted from Kennedy Space Center. All seven died. The disaster would throw the space program into an almost three-year hiatus and would put added pressure on those responsible for ensuring the men and women going into space would get there safely.

Scheuermann decided to be at the front of that line.

Already inspired by man’s exploration into space, Scheuermann went to work in Bay St. Louis with Rocketdyne, a division of Boeing Company, where he was responsible for testing the main propulsion engines of the shuttle. It would be the beginning of not only a successful career in the space industry, but where his passion for the space program would take root and grow.

Patrick and Sarah settled in and began raising a family, first living in Carriere, then Picayune, and for a while in Nicholson. As Scheuermann found his niche with NASA, Sarah, who had gone to school for journalism, found a job at the Picayune Item as a staff reporter. The couple made plans for their future, worked hard, and were active members of the community.

Two years later Scheuermann was presented with an opportunity to work for NASA as a test engineer for the shuttle’s propulsion engines. Almost as soon as he joined NASA, he found himself responsible for overseeing the construction of a $150 million test facility at Stennis where special testing of the shuttle’s engines would be held. He would later be responsible for the design and construction of the Stennis E-2 test facility.

Over the years, Scheuermann continued to move up the ladder at Stennis, first working with the Department of Defense to develop a cost-efficient way to transport payloads into space, then on the National Aerospace Plane project, and NASA’s Reusable Launch Vehicle Program.

Then, in 1998, Scheuermann set his sights on the stars and went into astronaut training. “I made it to the top 100,” said Scheuermann of the experience, adding that although he hadn’t made it to the finals, the opportunity to participate in the training program and make it into the top 100 was an honor. “Everyone has a role in life,” Scheuermann said, “I feel honored to make it as far as I did. And I was honored because of everyone I met that I might not have met otherwise.”

With his feet back on solid ground, Scheuermann moved to Washington, D.C. where he worked with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, gaining hands-on experience in the legislative process to “better enhance public understanding of policy-making and American national politics.”

However, Mississippi was calling Scheuermann home and the couple moved back, where once again he went back to Stennis.

After one more stint in the nation’s capitol, Scheuermann and his wife and children moved back to the area in 2004, settling this time in Slidell, La. “This is the center that raised me,” said Scheuermann referring to Stennis. “I wanted to come back home.”

During this time, not only was Scheuermann associate director of center operations at Stennis, he was named chief operating officer at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. When the opportunity to move up to deputy director presented itself, Scheuermann was up to the challenge. “To be at a place on the front line of NASA … to put people into space, it is an honor,” said Scheuermann.

Being second in command at what is called a “Federal city,” is not an easy task. Scheuermann said that between private contractors and NASA employees, Stennis employs roughly 5,000 individuals. Also, he said Stennis will be responsible for testing the propulsion engines of the next space program which will replace the shuttle when it retires in 2010.

“There will be noises that people haven’t heard since Apollo,” said Scheuermann, referring to the window rattling, ground shaking, china-breaking sound of the propulsion engines being fired off.

Called Ares, for Mars, the program features Ares 1 and Ares 5. This new space adventure, Scheuermann said, will not only take mankind into space, but will put man back on the moon by 2020. “Our goal is to get those boots back on the moon,” he said, referring to Commander Neil Armstrong’s, the first man to step foot on the moon, and Lunar Module pilot ‘Buzz’ Aldrin’s famous moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Going back to Apollo roots, the Ares 1 will carry the astronauts in a cone-shaped module at the top of the rocket. Ares 5 will carry the cargo into space first, and Ares 1 will dock with the cargo space ship once it is in orbit. Once docked with the lunar module, the astronauts of Ares 1 will be able to land on the moon. Launch of the first Ares 1 is projected for 2015, while launch of the Ares 5 is slated for 2019.

“People have expectations they will make it safely,” said Scheuermann of space exploration, referring to the analogy of everyday people getting into their cars and turning the key. “We are used to putting the key in and going. But to put people on board (of a space flight) is still risky business.”

He said that beyond the moon, the space program has its eyes on venturing further into space. “It is like the early explorers, they went out into the unknown. We want to go from surviving in space to living in colonies to further out — Mars.”

To that, he said, citing a familiar quote, brings him back home to his roots: “The saying goes, ‘I don’t know how you get to the moon, but I know you have to go through Mississippi for it.’”