The Source Civil Engineering Magazine NASA beach project requires the right stuff — even for Florida sand

NASA beach project requires the right stuff — even for Florida sand

By Robert L. Reid

It’s no surprise that NASA has exacting standards for the people, equipment, and facilities that constitute America’s space program. Tom Wolfe’s 1979 bestseller, The Right Stuff, chronicled that approach, especially when it came to the astronauts who would be blasted into orbit.

But it turns out that NASA also needs to find the right stuff for some very down-to-earth aspects of its efforts — the sand on its beaches along the Florida coast.

Dangerously close

An aerial view of Launch Complex 39B with Exploration Ground Systems’ mobile launcher for the Artemis 1 mission on the pad with wetlands, a beach, and the ocean visible just behind
An aerial view of Launch Complex 39B with Exploration Ground Systems’ mobile launcher for the Artemis 1 mission on the pad. The Kennedy Space Center’s launch pads are located close to Atlantic Ocean beaches and can be impacted by the powerful waves caused by storms. (Courtesy of NASA/Frank Michaux)

The John F. Kennedy Space Center is located on approximately 140,000 acres of land on Merritt Island, near Titusville, Florida. That puts some of its key infrastructure close to the beaches and waves of the Atlantic Ocean — including the launch pads that were used for the Apollo moon missions and the space shuttle program and which now launch the rockets for Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., colloquially known as SpaceX. The launch pads will also be used for NASA’s Artemis program, which will send astronauts back to the moon. But these pads are only about 1,000 ft from the Atlantic shoreline. Some access roads, camera sites, weather tracking equipment, and other assets are even closer — just a few hundred feet from the water, says Leo DeCesare, a senior project manager at the Kennedy Space Center.

So when a powerful hurricane hits Florida’s east coast, the high-energy waves can “come right across (the beach) and start beating against these structures,” DeCesare says. The launch pads are “fairly robust,” he adds, “but it would not take too long before there would be significant damage.”

In 2016, for instance, Hurricane Matthew — a Category 5 storm — caused significant damage along the 4 mi stretch of beach that forms the Kennedy Space Center’s eastern boundary, notes Kim Rivera, P.E., a vice president and department manager in the civil and environmental discipline of Jones Edmunds. The Florida-based engineering firm designed what were initially considered emergency repairs to the NASA shoreline, a project that eventually expanded into a much larger, recently completed multiphase effort, Rivera says.

Emergency action

The emergency repairs, which essentially became phase 1 of the overall project, involved sand dune restoration along the Kennedy Space Center shoreline, replacing an earlier dune system that had been over-washed and essentially destroyed by Hurricane Matthew, Rivera says. That phase of the project required trucking in roughly 460,000 cu yd of sand to construct what is essentially a continuous dune, roughly 4 mi long and stabilized by extensive vegetation, Rivera says. Toward the southern end of NASA’s shoreline, the project also essentially “doubled the dune” along a roughly 4,000 ft stretch of beach by constructing an additional dune on the western, or landward, side of the new dune system.

Launch Complex 39B is seen during an aerial survey of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida
Launch Complex 39B is seen during an aerial survey of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The survey was performed to identify structures and facilities that may have sustained damage from Hurricane Matthew as the storm passed to the east of Kennedy on Oct. 6 and 7, 2016. (Courtesy of NASA/Cory Huston)

An old railroad line along the beach also had to be demolished as part of the project.

The second phase of the dune work started in January 2020 and was completed earlier this year. It involved an additional 220,000 cu yd of sand that was used primarily at the southern end of the site, near the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Rivera notes. Hurricane Dorian struck the area in 2019, while the project was still in the works, and at publication time a section of dune damaged during that storm was being reinforced, DeCesare adds.

The project had to accommodate multiple stakeholders, including NASA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the St. Johns River Water Management District, and even the Titusville parks and recreation office because of the proximity of some of the work to Titusville’s public beaches, Rivera says.

Sandy solution

The Kennedy Space Center is located along a stretch of pristine, mostly undeveloped beach, part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Because the space center does not have a permit to dredge the sand in the ocean just offshore, the project team had to search for sand elsewhere — which proved more challenging than one might expect for a site along Florida’s lengthy coastline. But the project could not use just any sand, Rivera explains. Instead, the sand for the new dune system had to meet specific requirements for grain size, color, and other factors because of the site’s dual nature as a spaceport and wildlife sanctuary.

an orange sunrise seen over the water and through dune grasses
Native coastal vegetation was spaced roughly 18 in. apart across the new dune system to anchor the sand and provide a habitat for wildlife at the spaceport. (Courtesy of NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

For example, each individual grain had to be greater than 0.25 mm in size but smaller than 0.65 mm, Rivera says. Grains that were smaller would be too easily compacted, she explains, while larger grains would potentially generate too many voids within the dune.

Working with Florida-based coastal engineer Applied Technology & Management Inc., the project team developed a numerical model that simulated storm-induced changes to the beach and determined the sand volume and template needed for the project, says Rivera. The new dune system was designed to withstand a category 2 or 3 storm, the type expected to hit the region every 25 years or so, Rivera says.

Finding a source of the desired sand involved a “painstaking process” that Rivera compared to “a treasure hunt.” A geotechnical engineering firm — ECS, which has offices mostly across the eastern half of the United States — conducted test borings of nearby sites. The project team also examined samples from stockpiles of sand at the adjoining Space Force station, contacted Florida Department of Transportation sites that had pits and quarries around the state, and “processed test results from as many sources as we could get,” Rivera says.

Ultimately, this process identified two ideal sources — one at an airport in Titusville, which is “just outside the NASA gate,” Rivera says.

Driving conundrums

Of course, finding a source of sand close to the NASA site did not mean it would be easy to move the material to where it was needed. The total volume of sand involved roughly 35,000 trips by trucks driving back and forth from Titusville along a predetermined route that included some of the same public roads used by local residents before moving onto the space center’s own road network. Because of the wear and tear that such large, heavy trucks can cause to these road systems, NASA proactively set aside funds for road repair after the project was completed, Rivera notes.

The dune work had to be paused from time to time because of SpaceX launches and preflight tests that were taking place as much as once a week, notes DeCesare. Such delays added about an extra month to the overall project schedule, he says.

Dune design

The new dune system was constructed using off-road loaders equipped with GPS systems to ensure the sand was placed properly, Rivera notes. J.P. Donavon Construction, of Rockledge, Florida, was the general contractor for the first phase of the work; North Wind Construction Services LLC — part of Alaska-based Cook Inlet Region Inc. — was the contractor for the second phase.

The new system features roughly 4 mi of sand berm with an average height of 17 ft and an average width at the dune crest of 45 ft. In one especially critical stretch of dune — a roughly 1 mi portion of the total system, in an area exposed to the most high-energy waves — the crest has a roughly 90 ft width, Rivera says. The dunes feature a 4:1 width-to-height ratio on the eastern, ocean side and a 3.5:1 ratio on the western, landward side.

Vegetation was spaced roughly 18 in. apart across the new dune system to anchor the sand structures, relying on native grasses, herbaceous plants, and trees and shrubs, including sea oats, sea grapes, and railroad vine, among others.

Protected species

The Kennedy Space Center is the site of nesting grounds for several species of sea turtles and the home of an endangered type of beach mouse and hundreds of bird, amphibian, reptilian, and mammalian species. In fact, the space center “is responsible for more protected species than any other federal property in the continental United States,” explains Laura Aguiar, a project coordinator for the NASA public affairs program.

Throughout the project, staff from the space center’s Environmental Management Branch worked to trap and relocate the beach mice ahead of the trucks bringing sand to the site, notes Rivera. A silt fence — a short barrier often used to prevent debris from escaping beyond a project’s boundaries — was installed at the beach work site to keep the mice, gopher tortoises, and other species out of the construction area. There were also restrictions on when and where work could be performed. For example, no work could be performed in any wetland areas and no work could be performed on the eastern, or ocean, side of the sand dunes during the turtle nesting season, Rivera says.

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