Papers presented by Owen James Hyman since 2019

2020 Charlotte, North Carolina

"Collaboration and Dispossession: The Creation of NASA’s Space Technology Laboratory"

Owen Hyman, University of Mississippi


On Halloween, 1961, Senator John C. Stennis announced the creation of NASA’s Space Technology Laboratory on the lower Pearl River in southwest Mississippi. His appeal to the hundreds of families who would soon be displaced by the proving grounds for Saturn V booster rockets emphasized the need to beat the Soviets to the Moon and the promise of economic development through high-tech investment. Lost in his narrative of an emerging aerospace industry was the fact that the Corps of Engineers had already established a confidential appraisal for all of the land in the site’s 250 square-mile buffer zone. In the $24 billion Apollo Program, the cost for real estate was the one expense NASA and the Corps could fully control. This paper argues the defining feature of the Space Technology Laboratory for those dispossessed by its founding was not rocket science, but instead the activity the Corps identified as the highest and best use for their property: pulpwood harvesting. The Corps collaborated with local appraisers to consistently deny replacement-values for families who had been living on the same land for generations, even as they witnessed their towns dismantled and converted into industrial forests. This burden fell disproportionately upon African American communities with deep ties to the region’s historic lumber industry. For the pulp and paper manufacturers operating there, the new facility meant business as usual with an even greater access to resources. As my work shows, a focus on the science and technology of the space program—one of the key elements of the post-World War II Sunbelt economy—obscures the low-wage, low-tech pulpwood work that persisted in its shadow. Moreover, it hides a pattern of dispossession and discrimination black families faced in southwest Mississippi as well as at other NASA facilities such as the Johnson Space Center in Houston.