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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — When the space shuttle blasts off, which space agency officials say won’t be until March, astronauts will have the option of making an emergency landing at a French air base, if needed.

The United States and France have agreed to establish an emergency landing site for the shuttle at Istres air base, north of Marseille. NASA administrator Michael Griffin and French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte signed the agreement in Washington in June, according to a NASA news release.

The base will be one of many Transoceanic Abort Landing sites that are spread across the globe. The landing strips would be used if the shuttle had a problem after launch and had to make an emergency landing.

The U.S. military has used Istres off and on since World War II. Most recently, KC-135 tankers based at the installation helped refuel planes as part of a NATO mission. Last December, Air National Guard and Reserve troops left after rotating units in and out of the base over a 10-year period.

Under the new agreement, American military personnel would return to the base, but only during shuttle launches.

U.S. military emergency teams trained in shuttle rescue operations and under the guidance of the Department of Defense Manned Space Flight Support Office deploy to the emergency landing sites prior to launch, according to NASA spokeswoman Debbie Rahn. She did not know which units might deploy to Istres.

Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Naval Station Rota in Spain send personnel to the two primary abort landing sites at Zaragoza and Morón Air Base in Spain.

One reason Istres was selected was because its three-mile runway is one of the longest airstrips in Europe, Rahn said. Additional lighting and concrete pads for more landing aids will be built at the base so it is ready for the next launch.

NASA has said another shuttle launch won’t happen until March as it tries to solve the problem of insulation foam breaking off during launch.


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