NASA is still working to clean up the toxic legacy of its space launch program, even as it shifts into a role as landlord for commercial space projects from SpaceX Corp., The Boeing Co., Blue Origin LLC, and Northrop Grumman Corp.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Fla., is becoming a commercial spaceport after decades of hosting only the federal government’s space shuttle program.
Commercial tenants’ activities, like OneWeb’s satellite manufacturing facility and Blue Origin’s rocket factory, have grown over the past few years.
Michael J. Deliz, remediation program manager at the center, said its new goal is to provide “environmentally unencumbered lands” for the NASA program and the center’s tenants.
While the center has spent 25 years cleaning up after space launch activities, Deliz expects new concerns, like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), to also pose challenges.
At the center, trichloroethylene was commonly used to clean spaceflight equipment.
When the remediation program started in 1994, best practices for disposing of trichloroethylene, also known as TCE, included dumping it in sandy soil, said Deliz, who spoke at the 25th annual Florida Remediation Conference in Orlando.
The remediation program has found concentrations of TCE as high as 300,000 parts per billion in groundwater at the Kennedy Space Center, according to Deliz. The Environmental Protection Agency considers less than 5 parts per billion to be safe for drinking water.
TCE is now known to be carcinogenic.
There are contamination “hot spots,” or areas with high concentrations of chemicals, around the center’s launch pads as well, Deliz said.
The center has five firefighting trucks that use aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, to put out aircraft fires. That foam is potentially linked to PFAS contamination at the center.
“We do have impacts” from PFAS, Deliz said. “We’ll be assessing those in the next few years.”
PFAS chemicals are associated with adverse health effects, including developmental harm to fetuses, testicular and kidney cancers, liver tissue damage, immune system or thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol, according to the EPA.