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Shuttle Landing Site’s Future Up in the Air

August 2, 2008

By Diana M. Alba, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.

Aug. 2–LAS CRUCES — The fate of a back-up space shuttle landing site north of Las Cruces is up in the air in advance of a NASA plan to retire its space shuttle program in two years.

The site — called White Sands Space Harbor — is an alternative for shuttle landings in the case of bad weather at two other, preferred locations. On most weekdays, shuttle pilots use the site for flight training exercises.

But NASA is in the midst of phasing out its shuttle program and is developing more modern space vehicles. The last shuttle launch is scheduled for 2010.

It’s not yet known what will happen to the harbor, said Robert M. Cort, associate manager of technical operations for the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces. Options include turning over the harbor to White Sands Missile Range — overseen by the U.S. Department of Defense — or demolishing the buildings and possibly the runways.

“The decision at this point is really in the hands of WSMR as to whether they need those facilities,” he said.

The space harbor is about 50 miles to the northeast of Las Cruces, as the crow flies.

WSMR spokeswoman Monte Marlin said the post doesn’t know yet whether it will accept the

space harbor facility.

“It’s a marvelous asset, and we have to figure out how best we can use that, but there’s no solid plan at this point,” she said.

The site had its beginnings before the shuttle program.

The first runway, called Northrup Strip, was constructed by the Army in 1948 as a landing site for drone aircraft, according to Cort. In 1976, it was selected as a training site for shuttle pilots, and a second runway was constructed. Each runway was eventually extended to 35,000 feet — about 6.6 miles.

The runways aren’t paved. Rather, they’re composed of packed, leveled gypsum –the same mineral seen at White Sands National Monument.

Despite being a back-up landing site, a shuttle has only touched down once there — Space Shuttle Columbia on March 30, 1982.

Las Crucen Chuck Murrell, a member of the Dona Ana County Historical Society, witnessed the event, along with other onlookers, about one-half mile from the runway.

“There weren’t thousands of people there, but there were hundreds,” he said. “It was amazing to see that amount of metal glide in. It was really a very exciting time.”

It was after the landing that the site was renamed White Sands Space Harbor, according to Cort. A third, 12,800-foot runway was constructed in 1989.

In addition to runways, Cort said, about 10 buildings exist at the site, including a mix of prefabricated and permanent structures. The largest are a roughly 4,000-square-foot equipment shop and a 2,600-square-foot operations center.

Murrell noted that the federal government has done a good job of preserving other sites in the area, such as a location on the missile range where bomber planes were tested. He said he’s not certain what level of preservation should be granted to the space harbor, but it should be documented in some way.

“From our historical society’s viewpoint, we’d be interested in making sure we have some record of that, either videos or pictures,” he said.

In national media reports, NASA has said the termination of the space shuttle program will result in a work force cut. Cort said it’s not expected to impact the Las Cruces facility, which employs about 50 civilian workers and 60 contracted personnel.

Shuttle flight training will continue at White Sands Space Harbor, and it will remain a back-up shuttle landing site through the end of the shuttle program.

Marlin said WSMR, through an agreement, provides assistance to NASA in operating the space harbor, which it will continue to do until the end.

In addition, Marlin said WSMR will continue working with NASA because of research being conducted at the missile range that’s related to Orion, a next-generation space vehicle.

Another proposed vehicle is Altair, which would transport astronauts to the moon’s surface.

Diana M. Alba can be reached at dalba@lcsun-news.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.

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