The Land-Use Reinvention of Cape Canaveral

In its quest to remain relevant, NASA has turned to creative, adaptive reuse principles for the Kennedy Space Center.

Image AP Photo/John Raoux
A view of the Vehicle Assembly Building, right, is seen from atop the over 400 foot high mobile launcher structure for NASA's Space Launch System. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—Few expanses of land have such a vivid connection to the heavens than here. As the nation’s grandstand, Cape Canaveral has been the site of over 3,000 rocket and missile launches and 135 space shuttle liftoffs. It’s a place that utterly symbolizes our constant urge to explore, each time the countdown commences and the white plumes spiral up from earth to sky.

Yet these 130,000 acres of sand and scrub brush have lately been on the brink, as NASA fights for its future. With the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011, and Congress generally in no mood to spend billions for manned space travel to Mars, the once bustling mid-section of Florida’s eastern coast was set to be oddly quiet. If we aren’t going to have a big space program, after all, we don’t need a big spaceport. Hand it back to the alligators.

NASA, of course, has no intention of fading away. And as if to drive a stake in the ground, the space agency has been busy with all kinds of building and renovation projects on its property, a physical expression of a determination to stay relevant through the 21st century. What’s happening at Cape Canaveral is a tribute to land-use reinvention.

Much of the activity has to do with a fundamental choice that NASA has made: to make facilities available to private sector space initiatives such as Space X. A rocket just lifted off carrying a Jason series satellite from Launchpad 39-A last month. The effort to work hand-in-hand with such commercial enterprises is in parallel with the Space Launch System, a payload delivery system based on the space shuttle concept.

The completed mobile launcher structure for NASA's Space Launch System at the Kennedy Space Center. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The super-sized Vehicle Assembly Building, where rockets and space shuttles were prepared for liftoff before being brought along a river-rock dual carriageway to launchpads, is also being re-imagined to accommodate commercial use. At 526 feet in height, the ultimate big box structure is a treasure trove of fun facts: tallest building in the world outside an urban area, a volume equal to three and a half times the Empire State Building, 250 billion ping pong balls can fit inside. A lot of energy—and karma—went into this building, so it’s nice that it’s not being demolished.

Re-purposing buildings is a common theme here, for both financial and environmental efficiency. NASA dutifully went for LEED platinum rating at the Propellants Maintenance Facility. Over by the area used for testing vehicles on a simulated surface of the moon, solar arrays are being put up, joining a giant solar farm installed in 2008.

The main headquarters building, where Major Anthony Nelson had his office in “I Dream of Jeannie,” was deemed to be beyond retrofitting, as is typical, unfortunately, for many mid-century modern structures. Its replacement will include reflective roofing, super-efficient cooling and lighting systems, and electric vehicle charging stations.

The effort is clearly being taken very seriously, although the engineers may be getting a bit carried away with the planning jargon, as evidenced by this official statement: “Expanded areas for alternative energy production are provided along with an additional seaport for water borne transportation connectivity.” I suppose it wouldn’t do to say something like “a place where boats can tie up.”

It’s less clear what to do with the three-mile landing strip for the space shuttle. Other airports are being returned to nature or otherwise re-imagined, but a piecemeal redevelopment is unlikely here.

All this activity, however, stands in stark contrast to many other places in Florida, where abundant land and big dreams have combined to encourage more of a throwaway approach to development. The landscape is littered with zombie subdivisions and roller coasters and water rides that have not survived in the competitive theme park business. The phenomenon is so common there’s a website devoted to cataloguing these shuttered enterprises—Abandoned Florida.

I’m not sure Cape Canaveral would have ever turned into a ghost town. The Kennedy Space Center visitor complex is already a hugely popular destination, including a very well done tribute to the space shuttle program in the Atlantis building, which opened in 2013. Inside the restricted area, tour buses circulate through the grounds, winding up at the Apollo/Saturn V center, with obligatory gift shop. The place takes in 1.5 million visitors per year, many of them making the 60-mile trip from Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando.

NASA clearly wasn’t ready to cede this territory completely over to nostalgia. It’s all part of a larger political battle, almost willing Cape Canaveral into the future, as seen in this NASA blog post headline from December of last year: Kennedy Now Firmly Established as a 21st Century Spaceport.

We’ll see. But it’s inspiring that the space agency would deploy some imagination, cutting-edge land use planning, and construction methods in this quest. The alligators won’t have peace and quiet anytime soon, but that’s OK. They have long since learned to scurry into culverts on launch days.

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