Cultures Clash Over Shuttle Landing Site

Associated Press

Easter Island, where an ancient and unknown culture left huge stone heads that jut from the earth, may one day have a Space Age visitor--the U.S. space shuttle.

But first, Chilean officials who govern this Pacific island smaller than the District of Columbia will have to resolve a clash between anthropology and physics, a dispute some here say is fraught with implications for East-West nuclear politics.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration has asked to use the South Pacific island as an emergency shuttle landing site and lengthen the runway by 1,400 feet.

Chile’s right-wing armed forces have backed the project enthusiastically, and final approval is expected from the president, Gen. Augusto Pinochet.


But intellectuals, politicians and social scientists say shuttle landings could be disruptive to the 1,800 inhabitants of Easter Island, called Rapa Nui by the native Polynesians.

Easter Island, 2,350 miles off the Chilean coast, is known for its mysterious head sculptures, called moai by the natives. Some weigh more than 50 tons.

Norwegian explorer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, author of the book “Kon Tiki,” theorized that the heads were carved by a fair-skinned people before the arrival of the Polynesians in the 17th Century.

The island is the easternmost outpost of Polynesian civilization, widely different from the Spanish-based culture of mainland Chile. Eliana Duran, head of the anthropology section of Santiago’s Museum of Natural Sciences, warned that construction on the island could be “harmful.”


“Any decision regarding the island should be made only by a plebiscite, the terms of which should be subject to a wide-ranging national debate,” the Chilean Writers Society protested.

Chile’s foreign minister, Jaime del Valle, predicted that large numbers of Americans would descend on the island for emergency landings and “could upset the normal life of the islanders.”

Shuttle landings also would “put Chile in the nuclear line of fire,” charged Radomiro Tomic, a former Chilean ambassador to Washington and former presidential candidate.

He warned that navigational equipment would be placed on Easter Island and “could be used for guiding weapons from nuclear submarines or strategic bombers.”


U.S. Ambassador James Theberge, however, said the American plan was misunderstood.

“We’re not going to put in a base or any kind of installation. All we’re going to do is make it possible for the space shuttle to make an emergency landing, nothing more,” he told the Chilean press in Spanish.

Joel Cassman, science officer at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, said no sophisticated tracking equipment would be located on Easter Island. He said the NASA plan calls for four to 10 Americans to be permanently located on the island, but said the numbers could swell to 450 in the event of an emergency landing.

The possibility of a space shuttle needing to make an emergency landing on Easter Island is “very remote,” he said.


The United States wants the landing option because next year it will begin to launch some shuttles, chiefly those with military missions, from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif. These shuttles will move around the Earth in a north-south path.

Shuttles launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida have an east-west trajectory. The United States already has made emergency landing arrangements for these flights at air fields around the world, including Spain, West Germany and Hawaii.

Gen. Ramon Vega, operations director of the Chilean air force, noted that the Americans plan to lengthen the runway on Easter Island from its present 9,600 feet to 11,000 feet and upgrade the instrument landing system.

The improvements would be “very positive for our interests--highly advantageous for expanding current aeronautical infrastructure and, as a consequence, the development of tourism,” Vega said.


He put the chances that the site actually would be used for a space shuttle at “1 in 10 million.”

The Chilean press has estimated that it would cost the United States $20 million to make Easter Island suitable for a shuttle landing. The U.S. Embassy in Santiago said costs have not yet been projected.