NASA is considering a significant upgrade at its landing facility at New Mexico's White Sands Space Harbor, as part of the preparations for returning the space shuttle fleet to service, managers have told MSNBC.com.
The improvements could raise White Sands to the same level as the primary backup site for shuttle landings, Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert, said Robert Mitchell, who manages the White Sands facility. A decision on the scale of the upgrade could be made next month, he said.
"There's an extreme sense that [NASA's managers] want the facilities upgraded. ... Today we're considered an emergency site, so we've got the bare minimum," Mitchell told MSNBC.com.
Mitchell and other sources say White Sands would be designated a primary landing site, in the same league as Edwards and the shuttle's No. 1 landing facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Only one shuttle landing has ever taken place at White Sands: the return of the shuttle Columbia at the end of its third flight in March 1982. At that time, Edwards was the shuttle's primary landing site; Kennedy wasn't yet being used for shuttle landings.
Since then, White Sands Space Harbor's primary purpose has been to serve as a training ground for those who fly the shuttle. Astronauts practice approaches and landings using T-38 chase planes and Gulfstream II aircraft that have been modified to simulate the shuttle.
Shuttle landing managers have been debating a White Sands upgrade over the past two years, well before last February's Columbia tragedy, Mitchell said.
But the accident, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts, highlighted the risk posed by re-entry to those on the ground as well. More than 42 tons of Columbia debris rained down on a 2,400-mile-long corridor stretching from east Texas to western Louisiana. Fortunately, no one on the ground was hurt.
As part of its response to the Columbia accident, NASA is currently assessing the risks posed by shuttle approaches to a variety of existing and potential landing sites. A preliminary study conducted for NASA by ACTA Inc. showed that White Sands involved less of an overflight risk than Edwards or Kennedy, The Orlando Sentinel reported last July.
Findings from the NASA assessment are being reviewed internally, and the final report should be made public by early summer, said Allard Beutel, a spokesman at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Other NASA officials say the data so far indicate that upgrading White Sands would be consistent with the space agency's goal of maximizing shuttle landing opportunities and minimizing risks.
Options under study
Several options have been drawn up for the White Sands upgrade, and a decision on which option to pursue would be influenced by data from the overflight risk study, Mitchell said. He declined to discuss the options in detail. "I do not feel at liberty to tell you the dollar amount, but it is big," he said.
The space harbor is located on White Sands Missile Range on the alkali flats near Holloman Air Force Base. It has two intersecting 15,000-foot runways, with 10,000-foot extensions on both ends of each runway.
Currently, a shuttle that landed there would need to be towed from the runway to a concrete "de-service" pad, then hoisted using a rented mobile crane onto a modified Boeing 747. Coping with a shuttle landing would also require bringing in trailers and mobile shelters; the facility now has only a small control center and tower, in addition to the pad.
In contrast, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards has a permanent 100-foot-high gantry structure for lifting shuttles on or off their transport aircraft, as well as a 25,000-square-foot shuttle hangar with a 6,700-square-foot administrative annex. A concrete tow way connects the facilities to Edwards' 15,000-foot hardened-clay runway.
Thus, bringing White Sands to the level of Edwards would entail substantial construction activity. "If we do not do the full-blown augmentation, there may still be some additional equipment and facilities," Mitchell said.
'The gypsum bias'
Historically, White Sands' biggest drawback has been the "white sand" itself — the fine-grained gypsum dust that can get into mechanical parts. The 1983 White Sands landing took place because the Edwards landing strip was flooded. Columbia landed safely in New Mexico, but unfortunately a sandstorm hit while the shuttle was still on the ground.
In a NASA oral history interview conducted a year ago, retired astronaut Steven Nagel — who was on the support team for the STS-3 mission in 1983 — recalled that the gypsum sand "got everywhere inside the Columbia."
"I think the managers never want to go back to White Sands again. ... They said if you had your car parked out there with the windows up, there'd be sand inside the car," he said. "It was pushing past the seals and everything, it was so windy, and the sand was so fine. But it was a fine place to land."
Since then, NASA has addressed "the gypsum bias," Mitchell said.
"We do not have the same situation that we had for STS-3," he said. The pad for shuttle mating has been moved to a corner of the facility where blowing gypsum does not pose a problem, he said.
In comparison with a Florida landing, White Sands shares another disadvantage with Edwards: The mating operation, which involves loading the shuttle onto the 747 for a cross-country flight back to Kennedy Space Center, entails additional expense as well as an overflight risk of its own. Each landing at Edwards costs NASA an additional $1 million or so, plus an extra week or two of processing time. Landings at White Sands likely would involve a similar outlay of time and money.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg contributed to this report.