MSFC's mothballed test stands: Asset or Liability?

There are 11 'mothballed' towers at MSFC. (Source: WAFF)
There are 11 'mothballed' towers at MSFC. (Source: WAFF)

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - You don't have to look far to see hard hats, dirt and steel. Lately, Marshall Space Flight Center is constantly under construction, demolition or renovation. Deciding between the three is the job of Steve Doering. He and his team in the Office of Center Operations weigh and balance costs.

For most asbestos filled, outdated buildings, “repair by replacement” is the best method.

"It really becomes a no-brainer,” said Doering. “In effect, I can get two brand new buildings for the cost of refurbishing a 1960's building."

For most 60's vintage buildings constructed during the Apollo days, it costs $75 million to fully refurbish. Compare that to the $39 million it takes to build a new, energy efficient one.

But take a short drive down the street from the office buildings at Marshall, and you'll find a different set of infrastructure. There is a large stretch of massive test towers once used to test rockets that went to the moon. Today, decades later, many of the towers are still standing, still costing money, but not used. They're what is considered "mothballed."

You can think of "mothballed" facilities like leaving your house for an extended vacation. What do you do to your home? You would likely turn off the lights, maybe ask your neighbors to keep an eye on it and lock the doors. Well, same goes for the test towers.

The big difference though is that your house doesn't cost $5,000 to $7,000 a year to maintain. The average mothballed tower does.

However, WAFF found one tower that was anything but average. It reportedly costs taxpayers more than $45,000 a year. It is called the Propulsion and Structural Test Facility and it was built in the 1950's. The facility was last used in the 1990's. In 2014, its price tag for maintenance was $48,606. But Doering says, there is a good reason for that.

"95% of that cost goes toward the maintaining of the lab that we still have,” said Doering. “The structural stand itself is mothballed, but if I were to take that lab out and just leave the stand in its current state, I would only be looking at about $5,000 a year."

Facilities planner, Rhonda Pepper says unlike office buildings, the test towers are very costly to knock down. Plus, sometimes they do see new life.

"It is an investment per year that may save us millions down the road if we are able to use something that is already in our inventory," said Pepper.

An old Apollo test facility at Marshall is now being remodeled for Geyser testing for the Space Launch System. Others, however, are preserved simply for their historical value.

“It is the business case that drives a lot of that,” said Doering. “So, while we work with the state historic preservation officer to find out what can we do to preserve our heritage, we also have to make sure we are not spending an inordinate amount of money to do so."

Doering says they also have to make sure new facilities, like the towers that will test SLS rockets, won't just be a one blast wonder.

"They won't be considered a one off stand,” said Doering. “In other words, we aren't going to do one test and it becomes mothballed and obsolete. We set these up so they would have future capabilities."

Because Doering says with NASA, that future is also changing, along with the President and Congress.

"We go through a four-year cycle and the next administration decides, ‘nah that is not quite the focus we want, we want another one.' We have to be flexible enough to be able to respond," said Doering.

Marshall's repair by replacement plan was actually adopted by Stennis Space Center and other agencies in the country. Marshalls is also one step ahead of the federal mandate to reduce its footprint by 20%. 11 facilities in total are considered mothballed.

Copyright 2015 WAFF. All rights reserved.