New studies indicate sea level rise is accelerating and will impact low-lying areas, including the space center, sooner than previously thought.
The space center’s strategy to date has been to rebuild sand dunes every time they are washed away by a storm so that buffer is maintained between launch pads and the sea. The shoreline restoration area is about 3.2 miles along an outer road that circles the space center.
A study by non-profit Climate Central recently found that historic launch pads 39A and 39B, from which the Apollo moon missions lifted off, are among the most vulnerable. Each is about a quarter-mile from the Atlantic Ocean.
Both launch sites are undergoing multimillion-dollar upgrades, by SpaceX for commercial launches and eventual goals to reach Mars and by NASA for its planned Artemis moon missions.
“We are very certain that rising sea level is a trend that is increasing and will get worse,” said Maya Buchanan, an environmental scientist with Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists.
“The sand and limestone geology in Florida is not helping the space center’s situation. It’s more at risk because of erosion, and water can seep into the soils there,” Buchanan said.
NASA has invested billions at the space center since it was built in 1962 for the Apollo missions. The space agency has noted that the shoreline is about 200 feet closer to the big concrete launch platforms due to storms and rising seas. A railroad that was used during the Apollo era has been abandoned because of erosion.
A $11.4 million contract was awarded over the summer to Idaho-based North Wind Construction Services to continue building up the dunes near launch pads 39A and 39B. The company plans to begin work Monday, which includes removing and relocating a weather station that is in the path of new dune work.
Most space launch facilities around the globe are built near oceans to allow debris, recovered parts or wreckage from failed launches to fall into the sea rather than striking land. Exceptions include White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan, which are both in sparsely populated areas.
“Kennedy is basically a sandbar, and it’s susceptible to a lot of tropical activity,” said Greg Harland, a NASA public affairs officer. “But NASA has some vulnerability to natural disasters in all sites, whether it be flooding, wildfires, tornadoes or earthquakes. We’ve been here for 60 years. Our job is to protect what we have.”
The space center’s only strategy for coping with rising seas is to haul in more sand and build up sand dunes when they wash away — as it has during events like Hurricanes Sandy and Matthew in 2016. Hurricanes Irma in 2017 and Dorian in 2019 also caused some erosion.
Launch sites at neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are higher, but also susceptible to erosion. SpaceX uses one of those sites to land rocket boosters, and others there are being renovated by new space companies Blue Origin and Firefly Aerospace.
But some observers, like Climate Control’s Buchanan, question the long-term strategy of investing heavily on low-lying sandbars to secure America’s future in space exploration.
“It’s a question of how much to spend building up dunes again and again, and how long will they do that,” Buchanan said. “The most protective thing we could do is put limits on carbon emissions. People say that’s expensive, but any level of rising seas makes storm damage worse, which is expensive, and building sea walls and sand dunes is also expensive.”
NASA doesn’t budget for storm damage or shoreline restoration, Harland said, because it considers such damage an act of God for which it can’t plan. The money comes from allocations set aside in federal disaster declarations.
Dunes are not a long-term solution, agreed Maia McGuire, a Florida Sea Grant biologist with the University of Florida Extension Service.
“Building up dunes is a Band-Aid approach, and at some point the wound is going to get too big for the Band-Aid,” McGuire said. “Retreating from the coast is an option. It’s not everybody’s favorite option, but more and more are advocating for this every day.”
Meanwhile, Florida’s space development agency, Space Florida, continues a hot streak of economic development on the Cape. It has attracted many new companies like Blue Origin and Firefly, along with space-related manufacturers like OneWeb Satellites and Ruag Space that have built out new facilities near the space center.
“Space launch activity was put at the Cape originally because this was where the least amount of development was in Florida back in the ’50s. There is no such place left anymore,” said Dale Ketcham, the agency’s vice president of government and external relations.
“We remain focused on assuring human activity in space is a part of the solution to this threat” of rising seas and erosion, Ketcham said.