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Operation Dark Dune
On Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Space Shuttle Endeavour sat bathed in glowing light, silhouetting the vehicle against the dark night sky over the seaside complex.

Endeavour on the launch pad It may sound like an awesome and idyllic scene, but not for nesting sea turtles and their newly hatched babies. During their summer nesting season, these turtles emerge from the ocean along the pristine beach within 200 yards of the space shuttle launch pads. The light emanating from the pads can deter the adults from coming ashore to lay their eggs and disorient the hatchlings as they emerge from their nests and head toward the moonlit sea.

Image at Right: Lights covered Launch Pad 39A as workers made final preparations for Endeavour's launch on mission STS-118. Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

As part of keeping the balance with its natural surroundings, the space center's environmental management system has as one of its goals to minimize controllable impacts to wildlife, including the nesting sea turtles.

Turtle nest near launch pad. The natural height of the dune normally provides a necessary buffer, but the dunes along Florida's Space Coast have been severely eroded in some spots by hurricanes, particularly during the 2004 season. That year, the space center was impacted by two hurricanes just three weeks apart. And while some dune restoration was completed and more is planned, some stop-gap measures were needed until the nesting season ends at the beginning of November.

Enter some inventive individuals with a novel idea: Use what they have on hand to help block the launch pad lights so the nesting process can continue undisturbed.

Image at Left: In the foreground, a sea turtle nest is marked with a stake, while one of the railcars temporarily placed to block light from the launch pads is visible at left. Image credit: NASA/George Shelton

As those charged with helping to protect the environmental balance debated how to shield the beach from the lights, Doug Scheidt with Kennedy's life sciences support contractor Dynamac had an idea. "Boxcars are about the right height," he offered. He thought using freight train cars was "a shot in the dark" that just might work, shading the dunes in the most severely eroded spots. And since the space center has the unique situation of having a rail line that parallels the beach, it was a viable solution that would also avoid the pitfalls inherent in trying to erect some type of temporary barriers that would require permits and funding.

Sea turtle hatchling heads for the ocean. Uniquely bringing together employees from both the operations and environmental sides of the space center's management team, the railcar idea took shape. The cars were big enough and mobile, and some that were scheduled to be removed from service were coincidentally parked just a few miles away from the launch pads. The solution would be quick, easy and cheap. Somewhere along the way, the project was affectionately dubbed "Operation Dark Dune.”

Image at Right: A tiny sea turtle hatchling makes its way toward the surf on the pristine beach at the space center. Image credit: NASA/Donna Oddy

Moving day arrived on a hot Florida day in July, and the team relocated and strategically placed 25 railcars along the rail line in their temporary seaside location.

"As a former environmental protection specialist at Kennedy, I realize how fine a line it is between our operations and the protection of our natural resources," said Propellants Mobile Equipment Manager Gail Villanueva, who is in charge of the railcars. "I was happy I was in a position to help out, although the request was unique, to say the least."

Railcars line the dunes. Image at Left: Stretching into the distance, the line of spare railcars form a temporary light barrier between the turtle nesting grounds on the beach and the shuttle launch pads nearby. Image credit: NASA/George Shelton

The relationship between space exploration and nature goes back as far as the space program's roots in the region. When the Kennedy Space Center was carved out along the vast coastal area, its first director, Kurt H. Debus, arranged for a large portion of the center to be designated as a wildlife refuge. Known as the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, it now encompasses 140,000 acres and is managed by the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service. The space center also borders the Canaveral National Seashore, which provides an important nesting area for the sea turtles.

If innovative thinkers at the space center can continue to come up with creative solutions like Operation Dark Dune, then the center's dedication to the delicate balance between nature and space exploration can continue to flourish.

Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center