When you think of NASA's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida you tend to think of science and technology not of alligators and other wildlife. What most people don't realize about the facility is that, being located on Merritt Island, it is also a National Wildlife Refuge. Of Merritt Island's 140,000 acres, Kennedy only takes up about 6,000 acres. This makes for a tricky balance between nature and space science.

An Alligator Taking a Stroll at the Kennedy Space Center
An Alligator Taking a Stroll at the Kennedy Space Center

Image via Modern Farmer

It all started back in the 1960s, when NASA bought 140,000+ acres of property but they only needed a small fraction for the space program. The plan always was to keep the rest of the island undeveloped as an effort to protect lives if a rocket crashed. The sanctuary is now known as the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It can almost give you whiplash thinking of these sprawling subtropical paradise sitting cheek-by-jowl with such an ultimate symbol of looking beyond the immediate planet.

An Osprey Nest at NASA
An Osprey Nest at NASA

Image via Modern Farmer

Manatees (about 30 of them) graze in a protected area just south of launch pad 39A. Endangered sea turtles by the thousands come to this island to lay their eggs under cover of darkness. Because of this Kennedy has one of the most dense turtle populations in the northern hemisphere. Many thousands of wading birds, shore birds, and song birds call this island home. There are at least five active bald eagle nests on the island. There are also reports of armadillos, boars, bobcats, raccoons, and rattlesnakes.

A Rattlesnake on Launchpad 39B
A Rattlesnake on Launchpad 39B

Image via Modern Farmer

The island itself if managed by the Department of the Interior as a National Wildlife Refuge and as a National Seashore. More than 500 animal species call this 220 square mile island home. At least 15 of these species are endangered.

Naturally, since this is Florida, there are alligators. While there are few real interactions between the reptiles and humans, they do love to sun themselves on the runways. When a landing is imminent (such as back during the shuttle program), teams go out to make sure that there is no debris on the tarmac and runway, including any snoozing gators just out enjoying the day. The animals can also occasionally be found blocking doorways, climbing fences meant to keep them out, and hanging out under cars.

Boars at NASA
Boars at NASA

Image via Modern Farmer

“Nobody really freaks out,” says Gerard Newsham, a NASA research scientist. “All these animals come with the territory.” How many places can you work where one of the rules for employees is to not feed the alligators?

The alligators are the refuge's canary in the coal mine. NASA has a team of wildlife biologists who monitor and test the animals to make sure that they are healthy and to study their lives. It is unknown how many gators reside in the refuge due to it's size and the inaccessibility of much of the island. Their health is an indicator of the health of the refuge overall.

An Alligator Inside a Warehouse at NASA
An Alligator Inside a Warehouse at NASA

Image via SpaceRef

Many years ago a story came out about an alligator managing to make it inside a NASA receiving warehouse at Kennedy. The reptile was captured, bound up, and transported back too the wild via forklift. No one was hurt during the encounter, though I would think that the gator's dignity was a bit bruised after being trussed up like that. Overall the animals around Kennedy rarely make it inside a building. They are far more likely to snarl traffic and startle the occasional employee.

An Alligator Being Removed from a NASA Building
An Alligator Being Removed from a NASA Building

Image via SpaceRef

No matter how you look at it, it is a wild life at NASA. The humans can get a bit wild too.

Sources: NASA, NASA, Modern Farmer, SpaceRef

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