May 2015

Maintaining Balance At The Kennedy Space Center

Since the 1960s, Cape Canaveral, Florida, has been home to our nation’s most recognizable NASA space operations facility, the John F. Kennedy Space Center. This renowned spaceport plays a vital role as NASA’s processing and launch center, and it is where every American manned space mission originated. It also has served as the launching point for hundreds of advanced scientific spacecraft, including the Hubble Space Telescope and Mars rover.

If you’ve ever visited the space center, you probably were awed by the size and scope of the grounds, which include more than 700 facilities spread across more than 144,000 acres along Florida’s Atlantic coast. These acres contain all sorts of terrain, as well as waterways and swamps, along more than 30 miles of pristine beaches. And these natural areas are home to a variety of protected plants, such as mangroves, and endangered wildlife, such as manatees, sea turtles and indigo snakes.

Balancing the operation of a space program while maintaining a habitat that sustains natural growth and wildlife is part of NASA’s mission. NASA’s sustainability policy involves achieving its mission “without compromising the planet’s resources so that future generations can meet their needs.” That’s certainly reflected in how it manages the grounds at the Kennedy Space Center.

Myriad challenges lead to balancing act.
While managing vegetation here might not be the equivalent of sending someone to the moon, it is challenging. The sheer size of the grounds, along with Florida’s warm climate and long growing season, equals year-round vegetation issues for S.C. Jones Services, Inc., the federal contractor for maintenance of the Kennedy Space Center grounds. Glenn Willis, program manager for S.C. Jones, has led those vegetation management efforts for the last 10 years.

Besides contending with the favorable growing conditions for vegetation, Willis also must take into account the sensitive nature of many of the sites as well as the area’s fragile ecosystem. Over the years, the grounds have evolved into a virtual wildlife sanctuary. With no fishing or hunting pressures, many animal species thrive here. “Many oceangoing fish, turtles and other species use these grounds as a safe place to nest,” Willis says. “It’s actually helped keep certain species thriving here in Florida.”

Walking around, it’s easy to see what he means. Peer into just about any waterway, and you’ll see giant redfish swimming or flocks of birds sunning themselves. Any measure, whether mowing or spraying herbicides to manage vegetation, must be done with extra caution.

“It’s a true balancing act,” Willis says. “We work to properly balance program objectives with things like worker safety and environmental stewardship. Herbicides have been instrumental in helping us do that. We will always need to mow, but applying herbicides gives flexibility in how we manage certain things, without all the equipment wear and tear, worker safety issues and damage to the land.”

Roadsides are peppered with Brazilian invasive species.
As you might imagine, with more than 700 facilities spread across 144,000 acres, there are miles and miles of roads. About 130 miles of them, to be exact. Willis and his relatively small staff must dedicate a good portion of their resources to roadside vegetation management. Three certified herbicide applicators, as part of a total crew of 19, manage the grounds.

Driving these roads, it’s hard to ignore the biggest target in this space. Brazilian pepper, an invasive plant to Florida, is everywhere, working to encroach on roadsides.

“We have several means that we employ to keep Brazilian pepper from where it’s not supposed to be,” Willis says. “Especially on the roadsides, we do a chemical side trim application with herbicides, including Milestone. This enables us to prune back those plants that are encroaching onto the roads or near other structures we need to keep clear. Other times, we just apply a high-volume foliar treatment using Garlon 3A to treat the whole plant.”

Where infestations are heaviest, mechanical means are frequently used. “We have a Gyro-Trac to mechanically cut it back quickly,” Willis says. “Then, sometimes we follow up around six months after cutting with a treatment of Garlon 3A if we really need to keep an area clean.” The Gyro-Trac is a land clearing machine that cuts and mulches the trees in one pass.

Another troublesome roadside plant is spanishneedle. It has worked its way into the medians of typical roadways as wells as roads that giant crawler-transporters must travel to move space shuttles and other large spacecraft into position at launch pads.

“We’ve sprayed these areas with Milestone and have seen very good control, but the treatment also allowed the grass to fill in, which lowered weed pressure,” Willis says.

Experimenting with grass suppression leads to potential benefits.
“We have to mow our roadsides a lot,” Willis says. “And mowing isn’t cheap or easy with so much ground to cover, so we’ve done some experimenting with applying herbicides like Milestone in order to reduce mowing cycles.”

Willis discovered that Milestone® specialty herbicide got rid of the weeds such as spanishneedle, and the herbicide application also resulted in improved turf quality. “Where we’ve done these trials with Milestone, we monitored the weed control simultaneous with the growth of the grass,” Willis says. “It slowed it for sure, but also improved the denseness and overall quality of it — which contributes to keeping weeds like spanishneedle from coming back. If NASA would ask us to increase our mowing cycles, my response would be to show them this data and hopefully introduce a herbicide application instead of adding more mowing cycles.”

S.C. Jones operates under NASA requirements to mow or treat certain areas a set number of times per year. “Even working with these contractual requirements, we still try to implement a true IVM program and build real value into the requirements of the contract,” Willis says. “So, if we can reduce mowing while improving the quality of our grass, we will work to do that.”

Bareground treatments help create moonlike testing grounds.
Perhaps the most unique task Willis has been charged with at the Kennedy Space Center was using a herbicide application to help engineers create an environment that closely resembles the surface of the moon.

“To test out landing gear for a project called Morpheus, NASA built a testing ground on-site that they needed to mimic the surface of the moon,” Willis says. “So, we went in and applied a bareground treatment with Opensight herbicide to clear the area of vegetation.”

With the vegetation gone, large boulders and gravel were brought in and arranged to complete the setting. The space allows NASA engineers to practice landing Morpheus and work out any bugs before sending it into space. To check out Morpheus and get a unique perspective on the testing grounds, visit www.morpheuslander.jsc.nasa.gov and watch the latest videos of the craft in action.

Opensight® specialty herbicide also is used in other areas for bareground treatments. “We have a larger solar power field here, which is operated by Florida Power & Light and helps provide renewable power,” Willis says. “Because of how the field is set up, we can’t really get in there and mow, so we used a similar bareground treatment containing Opensight here as well to keep the area free from problem vegetation.”

Thinking outside the box to meet challenges.
For Willis and his crew, experimenting with vegetation management is a means to help better achieve balance between operational goals and environmental sustainability at the Kennedy Space Center. “I tell people I’m in the experimentation business,” Willis says. “We are constantly trying to figure out what will work best on particular species, in different environments, at different times of the year. With so many species and so many variables in what we do, we will do or try anything in order to get the best balance.”

And there’s never a shortage of challenges to overcome. “We’re always learning out here — there’s always something new and different that we need to get rid of,” Willis says. “It’s important that we don’t think statically, so I tell my guys they have the freedom to see what works best out there, within the labeled rates, when applying herbicides. And I think that’s served us pretty well as we work to manage vegetation and sustain our unique environment.”