Overriding loud but lackluster internal opposition, the Chilean government has agreed to the use of lonely Easter Island in the South Pacific as an emergency landing site for California-launched missions of the U.S. space shuttle.
The negotiated text of an agreement with the United States, now being studied here and in Washington, could one day see American astronauts landing among ancient stone heads carved by a vanished people. Signing of the agreement may come as early as next week.
The opposition here, which objects to the project both on geopolitical and environmental grounds, has been led by civilians eager for issues with which to badger the military dictatorship of President Augusto Pinochet.
Text Under Review
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the State Department are reviewing the text, according to U.S. Ambassador James Theberge, who said Tuesday: "We expect a response within the next few days. I am unaware of any problems."
NASA has sought landing rights on Easter Island for the polar orbit shuttle launches scheduled to begin next March from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's central coast.
Under the proposed accord, NASA will spend about $7.6 million to lengthen the runway at Easter Island's Mata Veri airport to 11,000 feet. It will also install advanced radio navigational equipment at the airport in the island settlement of Hanga Roa, more than 2,000 miles west of the South American mainland.
Landing Chances Remote
"The potential emergency use of Easter Island would be remote, and only during a shuttle launch phase," said Joel Cassman, an official at the U.S. Embassy here. "If there is an emergency during launch the first option would be to return immediately to the U.S. The second would be to return after an orbit. The third would be for a landing at Easter Island or some other emergency site."
NASA already has emergency landing agreements for airports in Japan, Spain, and Senegal, Cassman said.
No American personnel would be based on the Polynesian island, Cassman said, but about 10 NASA technicians would stand by there in advance of each of four yearly shuttle flights from Vandenberg, beginning with a launch scheduled for March 20, 1986. Polar orbits, useful for weather, earth resource and military reconnaissance, cannot be achieved from Cape Canaveral in Florida, which will launch eight shuttles into equatorial orbit during 1986.
Island of Tall Heads
Sparsely populated Easter Island, long a part of Chile, is known principally for its collection of long-faced heads carved from volcanic rock. The statues, ranging from 10 to 40 feet high, stare at the sea like melancholic sentinels. No one knows when the heads were carved, or by whom.
One Chilean historian was quoted here as saying that the U.S. proposal amounted to "building a dance floor in the natural history museum." U.S. officials, however, insist the NASA plan could not cause environmental damage.
NASA does not propose to build a new runway, they note, but rather simply to lengthen the current one the extra 1,400 feet necessary to accommodate the shuttle and the Boeing 747 that would be its piggy back transporter for the return trip to the United States.
The ability to accept wide-bodied aircraft also might increase the island's tourist trade. The Chilean national air line currently serves Easter Island from the mainland with weekly flights in conventional jets. The International Civil Aviation Organization, an arm of the United Nations, has approved flights to Easter Island from Los Angeles and Honolulu but no airline has yet bid for them.
Leftists Oppose Pact
Citing the military component of some projected Vandenberg launches, opponents of the agreement, whose most vigorous spokesman has been former Christian Democratic presidential candidate Radomiro Tomic, say it would make Chile a target in any superpower confrontation. There also have been complaints from the political left that the agreement amounts to asurrender of sovereignty.