The Cold War Comes (Briefly) to Easter Island


The daily LAN flight to Mataveri airport, Easter Island

At 27 degrees south latitude the trade winds blow across Easter Island from the east, so every midday, the daily flight from South America overflies the island, way out beyond it, then turns to descend into the prevailing winds on the NASA-widened air strip. And since it’s the island’s only interaction with the world that day, you watch.

It’s a favorite guidebook story to mention that NASA elongated the airstrip so that the space shuttle could land here in an emergency. I don’t think you’ll find a guide that doesn’t mention it. The runway needed 1,420 additional feet to run it out to the 11,055 feet required for a shuttle landing.

When NASA proposed its scheme some saw it as an evil imperialist plot, and it was met with resistance and even derision by some. In a June 30, 1985 article headlined “Lonely Easter Island Will Be Emergency Shuttle Landing Site,” the L A Times wrote: “Critics claim the United States will turn the remote island into a strategically placed military base that could drag Chile into the forefront of superpower conflicts and make the country a sitting duck in a nuclear war.

In a 1986 article the Times quoted Rado Miro Pomic, a former Chilean presidential candidate, in an interview in Santiago: "The real purpose of the airport expansion is to enlarge the strategic possibilities in the event of a war with the U.S.S.R. It is logical."

Times were different, and it may be worth noting the Chilean government that approved extending the runway in 1985 was a military one, headed by Augusto Pinochet. Maybe that gave some people the jitters. But the objections weren’t just that the Soviets would rush to bomb Chile. Their was also the “Easter Island is an open air museum” criticism. Any criticism in a storm, I guess.

The Times wrote, “the project has come under fire from Chileans who fear it will damage the island's unique archeological heritage.” And: "’The NASA plan is absurd. It's like building a dance floor in the Natural History Museum,’ said Chilean historian Oscar Pinochet de la Barra, one of the critics of the space shuttle landing project.”

For all the angst, as things turned out, the Rapanui today rue the passing of the shuttle program. Chile doesn’t reckon on any more NASA-funded airport maintenance.

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