Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Are there plans to land the Space Shuttle on Easter Island?

I just finished reading the book Shuttle Down by Lee Correy. This 1981 story of an emergency landing of the Space Shuttle on Easter Island definitely has many of my favorite things all wrapped up into one.

It has the Space Shuttle, an exciting emergency landing, Easter Island (or Isla de Pascua or Rapa Nui or Te Pito O Te Henua), heroes that are engineers and finally a little Cold War intrigue.

When we were on Easter Island we learned that the Mataveri International airport runway had been widened and the airport modernized by the United States for NASA as an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. This was in November of last year and there wasn't a Shuttle mission until December. How cool would it have been to see the Shuttle land on Easter island? While there are emergency landing sites all over the world, one is in Dover, Delaware. If that ever happened I would be in my car driving south to see it as soon as I could.

The book takes place long before the airport on Easter Island was prepared to take a Space Shuttle landing and the story revolves around getting the airport upgraded to allow NASA to get the Shuttle off of the island and one of the true heroes of the book is Red Richardson the NASA engineer who is in charge of getting it done. The book is credited with getting the NASA emergency procedures changed to take into account these situations and may be responsible for getting Easter Island its long runway, which allowed us to honeymoon there in the first place. Thank you, Lee Correy.

In great Cold War tradition the Russians even try to make a grab for the Space Shuttle. Do you remember the Cold War, when there was a right side and a wrong side? Even the CIA's release of the "family jewels", the embarrassing illegal activities from the height of the Cold War 50's, 60's and 70's, makes some folks think that the Cold War was the good old days compared to today's international situation. Those parts of the book were a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

While the book seemed to portray Easter Island fairly authentically the one critical mistake is that it repeatedly described the Moai as pointing out to sea and watching over the part of the world towards which they faced. Any Moai standing on Easter Island that are not in the quarry are restored, since every statue was knocked down during the wars on the island and when they were standing or when they were restored they faced inland, not out to sea. Our guide on the island pointed out that the Rapa Nui people believed the Moai concentrated the mana of their ancestors and watched over the part of the island they faced.

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