Tampa, Fla. — Astronauts landing a space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center may have to look both ways before touchdown. It seems the three-mile-long runway is becoming a popular spot with some of the local fauna.
Apart from its role as a space port, the center is also a huge wildlife preserve abundant with wild hogs, alligators, and birds. About 90 percent of the center's 220 square miles is kept in a wild state.
But the runway's asphalt gets toasty in the sunshine, and there are few things an alligator likes more than a warm place to snooze. Wild hogs find that grass growing in the sod lining the runway is filled with succulent morsels. And thousands of birds flock to the space center during the winter and find the runway a convenient roosting spot.
A fence and moat surrounding the runway keep most of the land-bound animals out, but occasionally a hog will find a low spot to burrow under the fence, and no moat has ever stopped a 'gator.
Within the past two weeks, US Fish and Wildlife workers had to chase down a pig that had gotten inside the fence but not across the moat, says Rocky Raab, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Agency officials check the runway for wildlife before allowing aircraft to land.
''Birds are much more of a danger to aircraft than hogs or alligators,'' Mr. Raab says. ''We get all kinds of bald eagles, vultures, lots of brown pelicans, and ducks in the winter. They could wreck an airplane's windshield or get sucked into an engine.''
But he said he doubted if a routing hog, sunning alligator, or a flock of pelicans would keep a shuttle from landing there. NASA officials are working toward the first landing in Florida in January, after one last June was canceled because of fog.
''It's hardly an us-against-them situation,'' Raab says. ''There should be enough activity around the runway on landing day to keep the wildlife away.''
A bird could seriously damage an airplane, but it wouldn't hurt the shuttle badly, he says. Its windshield is triple strength, and unlike jet engines, the orbiter's rocket engines have no air intakes into which hapless birds might stray. But a hog or an alligator could wreck the shuttle's delicate landing gear.
A final decision on where to land can be made an hour before the orbiter is scheduled to come down, he says, and a persistent animal could be chased away as soon as 15 or 20 minutes before the shuttle glides to earth.
''It would be very improbable for a pig or 'gator to stop a shuttle landing, '' Raab says. ''I suppose it's conceivable, but not probable.''
Alligators near the space center's visitors' center or headquarters building have been unceremoniously dispatched to more remote areas when they became too curious. And deputies with the Brevard County sheriff's office, trying to keep the jail's food bill down, have trapped pigs.
But somewhere in the swamp a 'gator or a pig may be wondering if the sun is a little warmer or the grass filled with fatter worms where that shuttle is going.