NASA Space Center
NASA's scientific developments have come at an environmental cost. Image: NASA / Bill Ingalls / Flickr / CC-BY

NASA’s shuttle program will not be sending anyone to space anytime soon. This, however, does not mean that NASA will not be innovating. NASA estimates that the environmental cleanup from decades of shuttle launches will take almost $1 billion and decades.

‘Viscous toxic goo’ in Florida soil

Kennedy Space Center and other sites that have been used by NASA, 267 in total, have been contaminated. The contamination in these sites comes from chemicals that were poured on the ground, shuttle launch plumes and spills of chemicals. Solvents, cleaners, flame retardants and rocket fuel all combined in the soil, and in some cases created “plumes” that go 90 feet or deeper down into the soil. The “goo” does not directly impact any known aquifers that drinking water is pulled from, but there is still a serious risk.

Ongoing cleanup efforts

NASA has not been entirely ignoring environmental cleanup. The agency has been spending $9 million, on average, per year to clean up chemical spills since 1989. Most of the contamination in NASA-controlled sites comes from long before the Environmental Protection Agency was started in 1970. Hazardous waste regulations came through Congress in 1980, specifically regulating trichloroethylene, the most common chemical found in NASA sites. The chemical, often referred to as “trike,” is known to cause birth defects and cancer. NASA has cleaned up 141 of 267 sites with known contamination, and estimates that it will be at least another 30 years before the worst of the contamination is neutralized.

Continuing scientific development

NASA has long been a center of scientific innovation and development. With a projected budget of close to $1 billion and 30 years allocated for environmental cleanup, NASA is continuing that trend. The agency is developing cleanup methods and procedures that are more effective and, in some cases, less expensive than traditional cleanup procedures. NASA is also working in conjunction with the University of Central Florida on these projects, attempting to create non-hazardous byproducts while cleaning up very hazardous chemicals. Corn oil and other “heavy” solvents are being used to bind to the trike in the soil, creating inert substances when mixed.


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