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Climate change threatens vital NASA launch pads

Nearly 100 feet of beach that served as a buffer between the Atlantic and the launch pads has been lost since 2003
Nearly 100 feet of beach that served as a buf... 03:16

NASA is dealing with a long-range problem at the Kennedy Space Center. After Friday's successful test of the Orion spacecraft, the space agency could face challenges to future space launches.

Orion's next flight in a couple of years will begin just north of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Apollo moon missions began there, and there were 135 shuttle launches, but climate change now threatens the vital launch pads, CBS News' Vicente Arenas reports.

From the moonshot to the space shuttle, launch pads 39A and 39B have been the starting point for American-manned spaceflight. The Atlantic Ocean has served as a safety barrier, but now it's threatening launch infrastructure.

Since 2003, nearly 100 feet of beach next to the launch pads have been lost.

"That big concrete block used to actually be sitting on top of the sand," said Nancy Bray, director of operations at the Kennedy Space Center. "That's how much erosion we've had over the years."

As Bray pointed out, the edge of the beach now is only about 200 yards from the launch pad.

The erosion problem became clear two years ago, when Hurricane Sandy's waves washed all the way over an abandoned railroad track.

"When the dunes were taken out during Hurricane Sandy, (the beach) moved back about 20 yards," said University of Florida geologist Peter Adams. Adams and John Jaeger have spent the last five years studying the beach.

"There's been a change in the way the waves actually come into the shoreline, and that's a function of climate change," Jaeger said. "The waves have gotten bigger, and the angle they come in from has changed. And that now means that there are parts of the shoreline that are hit by big waves that weren't in the past."

Adams added, "If you take out the dune, it's like opening the door for smaller storms to go right in and do some damage that they couldn't do before the dune was taken out."

The two launch pads haven't been used since the retirement of the shuttle program. But one has been leased to SpaceX to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. The other will support future NASA Orion missions to Mars.

"If we have too much washover, then it could impact those launch pads," Bray said.

As for moving the pads, she said, "That would be an incredible and an incredibly expensive task, and that's what we're trying to prevent."

To protect them, NASA is counting on a new $2.8 million, mile-long dune. Three more are planned.

NASA smarts put man into space. Ingenuity will also be needed to deal with the forces here on Earth.

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