February 20, 2007
NASA looking for new landing zone
By DINAH VOYLES PULVER
NASA resisted local efforts in the 1960s to borrow its unused land for a wildlife refuge and national seashore. The fledgling space agency relented but worried it might one day need the land for expansion and have a tough time getting it back.
Fast forward 40 years. After putting men on the moon and an international space station into orbit, NASA needs a place to land the next generation of space flight vehicles. So the agency is having "very preliminary" talks with officials from the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Canaveral National Seashore to find a location for a landing and recovery zone.
The area would need to be a cleared circle about 6,000 feet across, said Jim Ball, spaceport development manager.
The seashore and refuge include 167,000 acres between New Smyrna Beach and Titusville, much of that owned by NASA. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service share management responsibilities for the land and the threatened and endangered species that live there.
NASA asked the other two agencies to help identify the most practical and environmentally suitable location to land reusable elements that might be a part of a private, commercial space transportation system.
The agency wants to encourage development of a reliable, lower cost option for delivering cargo and possibly crew to the international space station. NASA sponsored a competition, inviting companies to propose a system to demonstrate Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS. Two companies were chosen to build demonstration projects, Space Exploration Technologies of El Segundo, Calif., and Rocketplane Kistler of Oklahoma City.
The companies can choose where to base their operations, Ball said. There's no shortage of locations interested in the economic benefits of becoming a spaceport, he said, but there's "considerable interest" in continuing the traditional use of the Cape as a launch site.
If the project is developed at the Cape, a place is needed to recover or land booster vehicles or other reusable parts of the craft.
Once a few potential sites are chosen, the agency will study the environmental impacts, Ball said. A NASA consultant expects to complete a report in about a month identifying potential sites. An eventual site selection would require identification of alternatives and public meetings to review the options.
The wildlife refuge is in a wait-and-see mode, said Ron Hight, project coordinator for the refuge.
"We live with this as a reality," Hight said. "Our overarching agreement with NASA is if there's a legitimate need for any of the land for space-related purposes, it could go to that purpose."
Hight said NASA has always been good at consulting with the wildlife service and choosing sites that have the least impact, for example using old orange groves as building locations.
Folks at the refuge aren't getting too excited yet, he said. "I've been here 16 years. There have been a lot of projects that could have started and then they go away."
The two commercial space flight projects have been promised a total of up to $500 million by NASA, based on demonstrated performance at certain steps of the process. The first phase must demonstrate safe disposal or return of a spacecraft that docks at the station and delivers cargo. The second phase would be transportation of crew. Demonstrations are scheduled to begin as early as 2008 and continue through 2010.