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Digging in the Dirt
A view from space shows Florida's Cape Canaveral. One of the greatest benefits of America's ongoing reach into space is the enhanced awareness of our own planet's environmental health. Taking the lessons learned to heart, Kennedy Space Center's Remediation Program is healing land damaged by five decades of operations and processing associated with groundbreaking rocket launches.

Beginning in the 1950s, Cape Canaveral's shores emerged as the center of development for the U.S. space exploration program. Although it was an era of incredible scientific achievement, people were unaccustomed to thinking about environmental conservation. The process of building and launching rockets for Americans to journey through space required the use of strong, toxic chemicals. Substances like chlorinated solvents used to clean Apollo rockets inadvertently contaminated soil and groundwater around the area.

Image to right: Launching missions into space has not only provided insight into new worlds, but also a greater respect for our own. Credit: NASA

Today, work is under way around Kennedy Space Center to restore contaminated areas to their natural health.

The job of identifying these sites falls to the Remediation Program. "We investigate and clean up contaminated sites on the Center," said Harold Williams, Kennedy Space Center's Remediation Program manager. Williams works with a team of five other engineers to discover polluted locations. "We go into biased locations where we think there may have been some sort of spill, tank (containing chemicals) or documented release."

Apollo 11 stands on launch pad 39A in 1969. After finding a site, and possibly removing tainted soil, the remediation team makes routine measurements to check the area's level of groundwater contamination. Technicians install groundwater monitoring wells to check the water condition. If the contaminant level is low and decreasing, the site is simply monitored to ensure the trend continues. However, areas that prove stubborn and fail to purify on their own may require more dramatic physical intervention.

Image to left: Contamination found around the Center comes from sources like solvents used on Saturn rockets in the 1960s. Credit: NASA

"If it begins to flatline and not make progress, we may have to reevaluate and maybe do something more aggressive," said Williams. This could mean treating the site with helpful chemical and biological agents or even installing a common groundwater treatment system. However, before moving ahead with a heavy-hitting approach, Williams tries it out on a small portion of the contaminated area. "We'll do a pilot test and then based on the results, we may expand to full-site implementation" and closely watch for positive results, he said.

Kennedy's initiative to clean up its contaminated areas is part of its commitment to environmental stewardship. While rockets are designed to function in the vacuum of space, the Center recognizes that their use also impacts environments here on Earth. The action not only shows respect for the planet we call home, but also worlds beyond.

Charlie Plain
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center