Kennedy Space Center seeks Sandy money as ocean chews toward launch pads

9:55 AM, Feb 8, 2013   |    comments
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This aerial view looks north with rail road in foreground, and former space shuttle launch pad 39A at the top left and launch pad 39B at the top right.


Cape Canaveral, FL (Florida Today) -- NASA longs to explore liquid planets but will first have to fend off our own watery world.

That could take upwards of $45 million.

As the ocean closes in on two historic launch pads, Kennedy Space Center officials have yet to hear how much they'll see of the $15 million Congress just allocated for NASA as part of the $51 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill.

KSC hopes for at least $4 million to fix 1.2 miles of eroding dunes that stand between the Atlantic Ocean and the two former space shuttle launch pads - 39A and 39B.

Those pads hold the future of human spaceflight, but an ever-encroaching ocean imperils their future.

"If we have a tropical storm and we have our dune breached, there could be impacts to the pad," said John Shaffer, a physical scientist at KSC. "If we don't do something now, the infrastructure is going to be irreparably damaged."

Fox News, the New York Post and the blogosphere blasted the $4 million for NASA beach repairs that President Barack Obama included in his request to Congress for Hurricane Sandy relief. After all, the storm's center passed far off Florida, they noted, some 220 miles off Cape Canaveral.

Last month, "Fox & Friends" aired a graphic titled "Sandy Scam," listing the $4 million for KSC among six spending items.

Unmentioned, though, was the fact that Sandy still sent pounding waves ashore on the Space Coast, causing erosion - in some spots severe - along Brevard County's 72-mile shoreline. Brevard County estimated $25 million in damages to its beach areas.

Despite the criticism that Obama's request was "pork," Congress increased the amount of NASA emergency aid to $15 million. And KSC officials defended their planned dune repair as only a Band-Aid fix for a much larger erosion problem that's crept inland for years.

"That is just to restore our primary dune and get some of our railroad track out of the way," Shaffer said. "We get impacted by high tides now."

KSC plans to remove and possibly move back now-unusable railroad tracks that once hauled liquid hydrogen fuel to the space shuttle. The tracks, built in the 1960s, now teeter on the dune's edge.

Since 1943, the ocean has thinned KSC's beach width by up to 66 yards between the pads, NASA officials say. Sandy's October surprise put an exclamation point on that damage.

Along almost two miles of beach, dunes retreated seven feet landward. The ocean undercut the railroad track along a 218-yard stretch near Pad 39A, where waves topped the tracks, flooding a nearby lagoon and partially washing away some of the railway base.

For the dune repair, NASA would mine new sand from inland, possibly Canaveral Air Force Station, but specific sources have yet to be identified. Trucks would haul the sand to the dune. The project would include a drift fence to capture windblown sand and native plants to secure the dune.

NASA officials say the dune project would restore habitat for the threatened southeastern beach mouse and endangered sea turtles. By blocking launch pad lighting, the new dune also would reduce the number of sea turtle hatchlings that get disoriented by the lights and crawl toward the pads instead of the sea.

As the ocean laps ever closer, the pads lie in limbo, awaiting NASA's next milestones.

The space agency is preparing Pad 39B for launches of crews on deep space missions aboard its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule.

But the first, unmanned test launch of the heavy lift rocket won't happen until late 2017, followed by a first crewed flight in 2021.

NASA mothballed Pad 39A after the shuttle program ended but has offered it up to any interested commercial takers.

None has stepped forward so far.

NASA recently declined Florida's initial request for 150 acres well north of the existing pads, where the state hopes to build a new launch pad for SpaceX. Negotiations continue.

Florida wants to keep the company from locating its future commercial launch operations in Texas, Georgia or Puerto Rico. SpaceX believes a pad operated outside federal jurisdiction would offer more flexibility on launches and reduced costs.

As that debate continues, KSC will hash out a long-term plan for protecting the old shuttle pads, which also were the launch sites of the Apollo moon missions. The plan will include options for beach repair and details about potential environmental impacts. "We're expecting our environmental assessment complete and ready to circulate for public comment within the next 45 to 60 days," said Don Dankert, a biological scientist at KSC.

Beyond some patchwork to dunes, the space center has never conducted a full-scale sand-pumping beach renourishment project.

Sandy critically eroded dunes that KSC had repaired after storms between 2004 and 2010 thinned the shoreline. Then in 2010, KSC built a 15-foot high, 725-foot long secondary dune along the worst spot between the two shuttle pads as proof a new dune could help protect launch infrastructure. After Sandy, that was the only stretch of dune left intact.

NASA officials expect $11 million - almost three-quarters of the Sandy relief allocated to the agency - will go to beach repairs at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.

Last year, an Illinois dredging company pumped 3.2 million cubic yards of sand on beaches at Wallops for a $45 million project to protect over $1 billion in federal and state assets there.

A long-term beach repair plan for KSC could prove just as costly and involve roughly four miles of coastline from Playalinda Beach to south of Pad 39A. "Ours would be similar to that if we did a pump system like they did," Shaffer said.

Wallops anticipates having to do repeat sand pumping every three to seven years, depending on need. Engineers designed similar beach projects from Cape Canaveral to Melbourne Beach to require sand-pumping about every six years. KSC would likely face a similar cycle.

NASA could mine sand from the same shoals those projects tap about five miles off Cape Canaveral. Federal funding must flow first, before a new buffer for the old launch pads can bolster NASA's next big blast-offs.

But as every high tide reminds, the ocean's clockwork ticks with its own countdown of sorts.

"We're just fighting Mother Nature," Shaffer said.

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