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The runway at the Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida has a unique feature that looks rather intentional: it is surrounded by "moats" or "canals".

Shuttle Landing Facility

They certainly look man-made, so I presume this is intentional. I could only speculate as to why this was made a part of it, I'm curious what the official purpose of this is.

My initial instinct would be to say that it is there to provide water for fire suppression in case of an emergency, but I've never seen something quite like it at another runway.

Is there any official documentation explaining what the water surrounding the runway is for?

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    $\begingroup$ The surrounding area is very planty, my initial thought was 'to stop the spread of fire'. Landings don't always go smoothly. $\endgroup$ – RhysW Jul 17 '13 at 9:38
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According to History of the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center

JSC wanted the water moat (located around the runway) since it would serve as a visual aid to identify the runway. It is also required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a retention pond for storm water runoff from the concrete runway, and provides a barrier against the animals for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR).

Wikipedia's Project Morpheus page mentions this:

As can be seen in the photograph the Kennedy's wide open spaces permit the entire flight path including runway and hazard field to be surrounded by a fire break consisting of a moat filled with water

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    $\begingroup$ I surmise the 'fire break' of the hazard field to be conveniently in place already, as required by the EPA for other environmental reasons, for the runway. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jul 10 '15 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ "retention pond for storm water runoff from the concrete runway" Drainage in a swamp was the first thing I thought of... $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Jun 26 at 14:31
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I too have wondered this in the past, and an official explanation has been completely lacking in my research! However, the closest I've found is the suggestion that it's for drainage. The following link of a podcast transcription states the following:

Richard Merritt, a landing support manager with United Space Alliance, says Florida's marshy terrain is the main reason it took nearly a decade to move from one coast to another.

Richard Merritt/Landing Support Manager: We were still a research and development type of aircraft/spacecraft. They just weren't comfortable with the target here. If you look from above and looking on the runway, each side has a lot of water. So, if you didn't make the runway here, you'd be talking to the alligators.

They go on to talk about how it was easier to land on a dry desert (another landing site) because you didn't have to worry about that - so I think that hints that the canal was probably constructed for drainage purposes to keep the runway from being swamped.

There are other theories that have been put forward, but none seem plausible to me:

  • The most popular seems to be water needed if a fire should break out - but digging a water filled trench all the way around the runway is an incredibly archaic way to do this, especially when multiple fire hydrants would have been far cheaper to construct and this facility is only found at this runway! In addition, since the shuttle isn't carrying much fuel at all on landing, the chance of a massive fire requiring this much water is rather low.
  • Again, security is another theory, but NASA doesn't use this approach anywhere else, and again it's incredibly archaic - we have much better, and cheaper ways of securing facilities these days.
  • Material needed to level the runway is another theory, but if this was the only reason then it would have likely all come from one big hole rather than digging a neat trench around the runway.
  • If it was needed to catch debris that might blow onto the runway, then we'd see structures with similar purposes in other locations, which we don't. If this was the case, then a simple reinforced fence would have done the job arguably more effectively for a fraction of the cost.
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    $\begingroup$ The shuttle (like a lot of space systems) uses a lot of hypergolic fuels. They're highly reactive (the point of using them) but also very toxic/corrosive. Perhaps it's a measure to deal with an inadvertent spill of such materials. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Aug 7 '13 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ Material to level the runway would be steones, gravel and sand, not topsoil from a march. If you deal with a spill, you use an empty basin that'ts insulated vs. the ground and groundwater with concrete or a plastic liner or similiar. $\endgroup$ – mart Jan 28 '14 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ The water wouldn't be to fight the fire - it'd be a firebreak, there to stop the fire from spreading and engulfing a wide area. Wildfires are still contained largely using firebreaks. $\endgroup$ – cpast May 21 '14 at 2:03
  • $\begingroup$ This answer seems so much more like archaeology than a discussion of a modern spaceflight facility. $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Jun 27 at 13:12
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I did research on wild hogs in the late 1970's. The shuttle runway was right down the middle of my study area. While building the runway, the hogs rooted the area up faster than they could build it. Fencing did not keep the hogs out as they rooted right under the fence. The solution... dig canals, fill the canals with gators to keep the hogs out of the construction site long enough to finish construction.

Here is a link to my M.S. thesis on wild hogs at KSC https://www.researchgate.net/publication/35615093_An_investigation_of_the_movements_of_feral_swine_Sus_scrofa_in_East_Central_Florida Here are a couple of other links on wild hogs and gator issues around the shuttle runway. https://www.csmonitor.com/1983/1012/101225.html https://www.nasa.gov/feature/our-refuge-feral-hogs

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Debbie, welcome to Space Exploration. Can you substantiate this story? Please provide verifiable details and preferably links, or we have no way of knowing if this is true. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Mar 30 '16 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, a citation on the hog study, and some pictures. This answer seems as good as any other. $\endgroup$ – Jerard Puckett Mar 30 '16 at 1:21
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    $\begingroup$ "OK, there's good news and bad news. The good news is the hogs are gone. The bad news..." $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jun 26 at 13:27
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Some research I've done on the web has turned up some interesting theories, but no official explanation. The theories that I think are most likely are:

  1. Dirt was needed to level the runway and was taken from the immediate vicinity
  2. Drainage (per berry120's answer)

A couple other ideas include:

  • Catching debris that might blow onto the runway
  • Water supply in case of an emergency
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