Testing a prototype of a reusable space plane at the Grant County Airport would have little adverse environmental impact, NASA officials said at a second public hearing on the proposal, but it would force the grounding of all other planes during the tests.
The most serious problems would occur for commercial flights around the airport, according to an environmental impact statement prepared by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“The airport would be shut down for 1-1/2 hours during the flight,” said Rebecca McCaleb, director for environmental engineering at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
“During that time, all air traffic in Grant County within a 10-mile radius would be grounded,” she said.
Japan Airlines, which trains Boeing 747 pilots at Moses Lake, and Big Bend Community College would have to cancel flight training during those hours. Horizon Airlines would have to cancel its morning flights, and crop-dusters would have to postpone spraying.
“That could cause some concern,” said Al Anderson, industrial manager for the Port of Moses Lake. “Crop-dusters typically like to get up early and do their stuff.”
Grant County Airport and Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont., are two major contenders as the test landing site for the X-33, a prototype of a reusable space plane that eventually could replace the space shuttle.
Other possible landing sites are Dugway Proving Grounds near Salt Lake City and locations near Ridgecrest and Baker, Calif.
A decision is expected in October.
The X-33 is a half-scale prototype of a radio-controlled spacecraft called the VentureStar. NASA hopes to use the VentureStar to send equipment into orbit and to transport crew members to and from the space station.
Unlike the VentureStar, the X-33 will not be sent into space.
The 273,000-pound wedge-shaped vehicle would take off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in a vertical position, then fly at an altitude of 250,000 feet. A normal plane flies at only about 30,000 feet.
About four minutes after takeoff, the engines would cut out and the plane would glide to its destination, coming to land horizontally, like an airplane.
The trip from California to Moses Lake would take only 17 minutes.
The X-33 would fly mostly over deserts and other unpopulated areas, although the flight path to Moses Lake would be directly over Walla Walla, NASA said.
After landing, the X-33 would ride piggyback on a Boeing 747 back to Edwards.
About five long-range test flights are expected during the summer of 1999.
During a recent meeting in Moses Lake, NASA representatives told residents they expect no adverse environmental effects from testing. Because the plane is fueled by hydrogen and oxygen, it emits only steam.
However, the space plane could cause some noise. Residents may hear a “sonic boom” similar to a clap of thunder, McCaleb said.
Although Moses Lake would obtain some prestige from being chosen as a NASA testing site, the project likely would have little direct benefit to the city’s economy, officials said.
But the X-33 could generate some tourism dollars.
Mike Buchanan, deputy director of the Big Bend Economic Development Council, said he had lived near Vandenberg Air Force Base in California - the location of many space shuttle landings.
“Fifty- to 60,000 people would come just to have a chance to see it come down,” Buchanan said. “I would honestly say we’d have the same thing happen.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.