Feb. 25, 2013 Late last October, one of the most destructive storms ever to hit the United States bashed the beaches of Brevard County in Florida, including the shoreline of NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Scientists are assessing damage along a 1.2 mile stretch of shoreline near Launch Pads 39A and B and developing restoration plans.
Hurricane Sandy damaged portions of the Caribbean and had serious impacts along the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states before delivering a devastating blow to the Northeast.
Constant pounding from hurricanes, such as Sandy, other weather systems and higher than usual tides, have destroyed sand dunes protecting the infrastructure at the spaceport.
"The shoreline continues to move farther inland threatening critical portions of our infrastructure," said Don Dankert, a biological scientist in the NASA Environmental Management Branch of Center Operations. "The ocean is now less than a quarter of a mile from Launch Pads A and B. The ground under the railroad lines has been breached, and the line of erosion has moved dangerously close to the beach road. Additionally, we need to protect underground utilities near the beach road."
Originally built in the 1960s for the Apollo Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the moon, the launch pads were modified in the late 1970s to support the Space Shuttle Program. Pad B is now being updated to support NASA's heavy-lift Space Launch System launch vehicle and Orion capsule. Pad A may be used in the future for commercial rockets.
"The pads are crucial to our future, and we've got to make sure we do all we can to protect them," Dankert said.
It doesn't take a direct hit from a hurricane to cause severe erosion on the beaches.
"When Sandy moved north past Florida, it was 220 miles offshore, but its effects were far-reaching," Dankert said. "The ocean pounds the beaches with higher tides and strong winds that rip away at the dunes, moving the shoreline farther inland."
Dankert explained that Sandy was only the most recent blow to beaches along the Space Coast.
"During Kennedy's history, tropical weather has continued to batter our shoreline," he said. "Some pass by, and with some we've had a few direct hits. It's a constant battle to restore the dunes that hold off the weather-induced erosion."
Experts such as Dankert are busy developing a long-term plan to mitigate the constant battering from the environment. They hope to use some of the $15 million included for NASA in the multi-billion-dollar Hurricane Sandy relief bill passed by Congress.
"Part of these funds will go to the NASA facility on Wallops Island on the coast of Virginia since they had a lot of damage too," he said. "Hopefully, we will be able to use some of that money to rebuild the sand dunes here."
Kennedy officials are hoping to bring in sand to replace the protective sand dunes on the beach that can serve as a buffer from tropical cyclones.
"A Dune Vulnerability Team was formed in 2009 to assess the condition of our shoreline and develop a strategy to provide long-term protection," Dankert said. "The DVT is a joint effort with NASA, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the University of Florida. In addition to rebuilding the dunes, we needed to plant native vegetation on newly created dunes to provide soil stabilization and benefits to native wildlife."
Following a number of hurricanes and tropical storms dating back to 2004, repairs to the primary dunes along Kennedy's beaches was required. A 15-foot-high, 725-foot long secondary dune was completed in 2010 along the widest expanse between pads A and B. The new dune was the only stretch remaining intact after Hurricane Sandy.
"After rebuilding the dunes, we may remove the rail since it hasn't been used in years," Dankert said, "so we can protect the beach road and the launch pads which are crucial to Kennedy's future."
The space center's shoreline also is an important habitat for wildlife, including several endangered species. "Losing portions of the Kennedy shoreline may have negative effects for species such as the Southeastern beach mouse, indigo snakes and gopher tortoises," Dankert said. "Restoring the dunes will also help us protect these species."
Dankert noted that the re-built dunes also would block launch pad lighting on the beach, thus aiding nesting and hatchling sea turtles find their way to and from the ocean.
"The newly hatched sea turtles are disoriented by artificial light," he said. "We want to encourage them to head toward the sea."
According to Dankert, the funding to begin restoring the beach dunes comes at a crucial time for the Florida spaceport.
"Our beaches have been slowly eroding for years and the sooner we get started, the better," he said. "This will, at least, get us going."
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