The Nitrogen Tetroxide Scrubber (above) at the Oxidizer Farm for Launch Pad 39A. Image courtesy Kennedy Space Center.
If you think about it, it makes sense. Rockets use all sorts of chemicals to fuel their flight. NASA has been using Cape Kennedy since the sixties to loft these wonders, and -- at least back then -- ecology and pollution weren't top-of-mind considerations.
That's too bad, because now that the Shuttle program has come to an end, we're discovering that there's more to the NASA legacy than national pride.
There's toxic waste. Enough that it'll take about a billion dollars to clean up.
See also: Last flight: The end of the future
Rosaly Santos-Ebaugh has a messy job on her hands. She's KSC's Remediation Program Manager, the person who heads up all cleanup efforts on the Cape. She describes the problem: "In the past, back in Apollo, the normal disposal of the solvent cleaning was down the drain ... out the back door."
Unfortunately, an awful lot went down the drain and has found its way as far as 90 feet deep into the soil under the various launch pads and production facilities at both Kennedy Space Center and the lesser-known Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The soil damage encompasses 600 acres of contaminated soil and groundwater at KSC and another 1,030 acres at the Air Force station.
While the contaminated area is under the control of NASA and the Air Force, and is unlikely to cause negative health effects for surrounding citizens, toxins like trichloroethylene (PDF) can cause cause cancer and birth defects. As someone living in Brevard County -- even if I'm way outside of the danger zone -- I have to say this news doesn't exactly thrill me.
There has been some progress towards cleaning up the contamination. About half of the sites that are or were operated by NASA have been cleaned up, and the rest are now being treated, are clearing out through natural processes, or -- always a phrase that inspires confidence -- "are under investigation."
- KSC Safety and Mission Assurance site
- A Summary of NASA and USAF Hypergolic Propellant Related Spills and Fires (PDF)
- Kennedy NASA Procedural Requirements: KSC Industrial Hygiene Programs (PDF)
- Aerospace Vehicle Exhaust and Toxic Chemical Release (PDF)