Air Force uses lasers to preserve space history

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By Jennifer Schneider, Air Force Civil Engineering Center Public Affairs / Published September 03, 2014



JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas (AFNS) -- The site of one of America's proudest achievements is now little more than a weed-riddled concrete pad, surrounded by twisted, rusting metal.

Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 14 is best known as the launch site for NASA's "Friendship 7," the flight that brought John Glenn fame as the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Now, more than 50 years later, the complex and other National Historic Landmarks are rapidly falling into decay.

"Some of these complexes are in poor shape," said Tom Penders, the cultural resources manager for the Air Force's 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. "A couple (of the structures) are on the verge of collapsing, so I wanted highly detailed documentation before something happens."

The site is situated near the Atlantic Ocean, where salty winds create a highly corrosive environment. Challenged by limited funding for major preservation projects, the Air Force has turned to cutting-edge technology to document and preserve Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's historic launch structures, before it's too late.

The 45th SW partnered with the University of South Florida's Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies, or AIST, to implement a solution: the use of a laser scanner to survey, map and create virtual-model videos of six of the highest-priority historic launch complexes.

"We consider many of these structures to be endangered species, meaning that they are unique and sometimes the last of their kind, and we are looking at ways to preserve them digitally and holistically, as well as improve chances for effective stabilization and maintenance," said Dr. Lori Collins, the co-director of the AIST program at USF.

The scanners, developed by FARO Technologies of Lake Mary, use lasers to create high-speed, 360-degree scans, and are able to measure approximately a million data points per second of everything within 360 yards. The three-dimensional images are so accurate that millimeter-sized details are able to be examined and analyzed.

"It not only costs far less and takes much less time, but also provides an accurate, detailed record of the historic properties than can be achieved by traditional documentation methods," said Heidi Mowery, the cultural resources manager at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center's installation support team at Patrick AFB, who assisted the wing with project funding requirements.

With scanning and field operations complete, the project is now focusing on modeling, visualization and other digital products for possible future maintenance and stabilization of the structures, as well as for education and outreach efforts.

"Digital documentation will, in this case, not only be used for preservation and archival recording efforts, but for visualization through online, classroom and other applications, promoting education and outreach," Collins said. "Already, data from this project has been used in courses at USF on heritage preservation, museum visualizations and field method applications, and much more is planned in the way of teaching and training using heritage as a theme."

The scans can also provide a unique opportunity for the public to take an electronic tour of the historic facilities.

"I would like to see people taking a virtual tour of CCAFS and visiting the launch complexes, seeing them past and present," Penders said. "With cuts in budgets and ever changing launch requirements, touring CCAFS is on hold or could be stopped in the future if needed. This presents an alternative to a physical tour."

The next phase of the project is scheduled to begin in 2015, and will include terrestrial laser scanning and 3-D spatial technologies to identify, evaluate and document baseline conditions at the launch complexes. With baselines established, the project will evaluate condition changes and deterioration over five years of continued monitoring.

The resulting information will help the 45th Space Wing plan and prioritize future preservations and restorations efforts, Mowery said.

In addition to preserving space history, the wing plans to apply the technology to other projects at CCAFS and Patrick in the future.

"Several of the early settlers' cemeteries here have grave markers that are degrading, plus their location close to the Banana River make them susceptible to rising waters," Penders said. "I also want to use this methodology at Patrick (AFB) on the few remaining World War II facilities, as well as downrange on Antigua and Ascension Island."

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