NASA Wallops is 'fighting Mother Nature' to restore eroding shoreline and keep rockets flying
By TAMARA DIETRICH | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: September 9, 2019
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Sitting right inside “hurricane alley,” NASA Wallops Flight Facility is in a never-ending struggle to keep the Atlantic at bay while powerful waves encroach inexorably on its launch pads.
Those pads were built by Virginia taxpayers, most recently to boost commercial cargo runs to the International Space Station. But Wallops also hosts important Naval infrastructure, and integration facilities for Northrop Grumman’s Antares rockets and Cygnus spacecraft.
“It’s over a billion dollars worth of assets on the island,” said Keith Koehler, NASA Wallops news chief. “Wallops is typical of the barrier islands — they’re not wide, and they have served (to protect) the mainland over the years. So we’ve made the best of it.”
“We’re fighting Mother Nature,” said Paul Bull, deputy division chief for facilities at Goddard Space Flight Facility, which operates Wallops.
Hurricane Dorian was only the latest example of what they’re up against.
Another was Sandy, which wreaked havoc along the Atlantic coast in 2012, spurring projects to replenish the shoreline not only at Wallops but also at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At Wallops, 3.2 million cubic yards of sand were mined offshore in 2012 and a sea wall extended by 1,700 feet at a combined cost of $42 million. Two years later, 650,000 more cubic yards were dredged and dumped at a cost of about $11 million.
Those efforts rebuilt a roughly 100-yard-wide beach to separate the Atlantic from the launch pads. But in the years since, the beach has shrunk to half that width. Recent studies show that the southern reaches of Wallops are losing 235,000 cubic yards of sand every year to erosion.
Where’s it all going? It’s still there, but it’s migrating from the south end of the island to the north.
So in January the Virginia Marine Resources Commission approved a plan to haul that migrant sand back into place — 1.3 million cubic yards of material to be harvested from the north end of the island to restore a 19,000-foot stretch of beach on the south. They’re also installing a new set of breakwaters.
“That, in a nutshell, is what the scope is,” said John Saecker, civil engineer and project manager at Wallops. “We’re taking it back to the profile that already existed in 2012 for our first project.”
The cost of the project isn’t set — the work is going up for bid. Bull estimates the cost will be “somewhere in-between” the 2012 and 2014 projects.
The work is expected to begin no earlier than November and should take about a year to complete. Bull said it won’t inhibit NASA or Naval operations, and crews will stand down as needed for launches.
NASA has a 50-year permit to keep renourishing the beach, which Bull expects should be done every five to seven years.
Koehler said replenishment is superior to other methods employed over the years to protect the facility.
“We really haven’t had any significant flooding whatsoever on the island (since 2012),” said Koehler. “And so it’s really done the job.”
Eventually moving the pads farther inland to escape the ever-encroaching ocean isn’t feasible, and not only because it would cost a fortune — launch pads are typically built along the coast to reduce the risk to inhabited areas, and Wallops is too narrow to accommodate an inland facility.
Wallops was established in 1945 and since then has served as a launch range for science rockets, high-altitude balloons, unmanned aerial vehicles and spacecraft for science, military, government and commercial entities.
The larger 0A and 0B launch pads were originally built in the 1990s, but were rebuilt or upgraded in recent years. Pad 0A was repurposed for uncrewed cargo missions to the space station as state leaders strive to position Virginia as a player in the commercial space industry. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is operated by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, or Virginia Space.
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