NASA’s Cleanup Crisis: Blasting off without thinking about the mess.

Photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center |

Upon visiting NASA’s Kennedy Space Center three years ago, I was taken in by the advanced aerospace developments available for the public to see.  I’d witnessed the testing of two rockets, a simulation of what it’s like to fly through the Earth’s atmosphere, and saw the awe-inspiring shuttles and vehicles that have been retired after past missions.

Masked by the technological wonders held in the USA’s major space center, at the time it never occurred to me what effect the massive field of space research physically inflicts on our Earth.

A historical challenge that has faced NASA since initial Apollo missions of the ‘60s has been the damage upon the sandy soils underlying the launch pads and structures of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  The most hazardous contaminant in question across NASA experimentation sites is the chlorinated solvent trichloroethylene, or trike. 

Trike is used in large volumes to clean liquid-fueled rocket engines before and after testing, but also assumed an undesired purpose, seeping into the soil under launch sites creating vast plumes of carcinogenic chemicals beneath the Earth’s surface. 

These masses of underground pollution can span 2 square miles, penetrating up to 90 foot depths; constantly mixing with aquifers (underground sources of water). All in all, this does not constitute a simple remediation project.

Florida environmental regulators confirmed 267 sites devastated by pollution through NASA’s projects; 141 of these sites have previously been dealt with and now the remaining cleanup, projected to take the next 30-100 years to conduct, comes a $1billion blow.

Of the 141 contaminated areas of approved cleanup, methods had been resorted to allowing toxins, like trike, to breakdown naturally.  This process could still take up to 300 years to diffuse into the Earth’s natural cycling of elements—a measure which I think is still improperly dealt with. 

The majority of contamination was released prior to federal standards being declared about the dangers of trike and related leachates.  I feel that we most definitely still have an obligation to correct this past damage, ignorantly imposed by NASA activities.

One hopeful solution emerging in this pollution-filled dilemma has come with a technology able to breakdown contaminants into non-hazardous byproducts, wreaking much less havoc on water and soil around NASA’s Space Center and Air Force station.

A lab of the Kennedy Space Center came up with a breakthrough in the last 5 years building off a corn oil-iron powder solution.  When injected into plume hot spots, this cost-feasible liquid expresses binding properties to dense, harmful solvents like trike and heavy metals.  In this form, they can undergo natural breakdown methods in a safer manner to the environment.

Generally, cleanup procedures can be improved on a long-term basis by analyzing the function of a development with the type of land it’s being constructed on.  In this manner, precautions can be taken from the moment that we start using an area of land, to ensure that we aren’t abusing it and creating more problems for ourselves down the road.  

In the case of NASA’s history of clean-up struggles, we must devote more time to ensuring we care for our Earth, before jumping ahead to find out what’s beyond it.