NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility, or SLF, was built for the space shuttle, but it also has hosted an international assortment of gigantic transport aircraft, fighter jets, race cars and even off-course skydivers. Someone watching from the control tower might in one day see astronauts diving at the runway in a Shuttle Training Aircraft, NASA security helicopters sweeping the area, or a mosquito aircraft spraying near the launch pad perimeter. They also can find themselves making room on the runway for the occasional stray private pilot.
Such is life as an air traffic controller at one of the world's longest runways. "You never know what's going to happen next," said Ron Feile, who oversees the air traffic control and operations at the SLF for EG&G. Built a few miles west of the shuttle launch pads at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the landing strip was built for such a unique mission that it may be hard to think of it as an airport. But that's what it is, just ask the folks who man the control tower 100 feet above the 3-mile-long, concrete runway."You're always vigilant, you're always on your toes," said Ken Hooks, who has been working as an air traffic controller since 1968. The control tower at the SLF is relatively new and offers some of the best views around of the spaceport. Standing inside the glass enclosure at the top of the tower, controllers have the same gear that other airports use to monitor and regulate aircraft moving around the area. The space is split between a NASA-focused controller for the runway, and one who works for the Air Force’s Eastern Range.
The controllers oversee rectangles of airspace running far north of Kennedy down to Port Canaveral. If something is flying inside any of the areas, the controllers want to know what it is. "You'll have all these small little aircraft that are in here and have official business, but you need to know who they are, where they are and what they're doing," Hooks said.