This answer to the question Could the Space Shuttle have landed on any long runway other than those specially reinforced at Kennedy (TTS), and Edwards (EDW)? says:

The Mataveri Airport on Easter Island was a planned abort site for the Space Shuttle. Since the Space Shuttle has no means of propulsion, you might want to have a fairly tight mesh of potential landing sites in event of an emergency.

As a nice side-effect, the long runway allowed for larger passenger aircraft to service the island, which boosted tourism. A nice win-win situation.

What caught my eye is the comment:

The runway improvement happened only after the problem of an unprepared emergency landing there occurred... in a novel. But then none of the Vandenberg launches for which it would have been a launch abort site ever ultimately happened.

followed by this comment:

He's probably talking about Shuttle Down by Lee Correy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuttle_Down

Question: Is this timing factually correct? If so, was this coincidental, or is there in fact some causal aspect to the relationship?

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    $\begingroup$ The timing is correct. Shuttle Down was published in 1980 and the agreement with Chile to pay for the runway extension wasn’t until 1985 with the extension coming into use in 1987. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ I've left word of this question in Space SE looking for additional information from NASA. There can certainly be factual information that can address this question, let's wait a bit to see before labeling the question "primarily opinion-based". $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 22:43

2 Answers 2


As much as I enjoyed reading the novel after reading the Wikipedia article about Mataveri Airport I am somewhat disappointed by my answer. The novel was published in 1980 and the official agreement between the United States and Chile was not signed until 1985 there is circumstantial evidence that the novel did not play a causal role.

In Glynn S. Lunney's Oral History from NASA's Oral History Project. Link to Full Text It appears that from very early on in the Air Force's involvement with the Shuttle Project that Easter Island was identified as a possible abort landing site. They didn't like it because of the short runway but they thought about it. Because this is an oral history it is hard to pin down exactly when these thoughts were happening but the context makes it look like it was quite early.

Naturally all of the news articles from 1984-1987 about the extension I found never mention the novel. Nor does the official text of the Agreement.

It was a fun little novel though. Which strangely enough foresaw most of the logistical problems that would arise from having a NASA retrieval crew on Easter Island. Especially the water and sanitation limits.

Having kept looking for a bit I found an interesting declassified memo from 1966! The Air Force has been considered their own manned space flight program launching from the Western Test Range heading south and using Easter Island as a possible abort landing sight. Another memo from 1967 says it got so far as actual discussions with the Chilean government. Even though these documents were classified it is clear that the idea of using Easter Island as an emergency landing site did not come from the novel.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Thank you for looking into this! Now I'm intrigued; I'll try to find a copy to read myself. I'm curious; were you already familliar with the situation somewhat and had read the news articles, or is that research you've done just now in order to answer the question? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like people have it backward. The possibility of the Easter Island backup probably inspired the novel $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 18:04

I live on Easter Island and most people here are familiar with this story. The novel DID pique NASA's interest in extending the runway here to accommodate the especially modified 747 that carries the shuttle. Up until the publication of the novel they had not considered the problem. In the mid 1960's an agreement with Chile enabled the US to set up a tracking station on Easter Island for the surveillance of artificial earth satellites. Some hundred North American military men were stationed on the island between 1967 and 1971. They left right before marxist president Salvador Allende was elected into office, foreseeing conflict.

The novel was first published in four instalments in a science fiction magazine between 1980-1981. The matter was being discussed for quite some time before the news officially broke out on June 30, 1985, that the then-military government had approved NASA's request to extend the airstrip, which they completed in 1987. It was also agreed to periodically re-pavement the runway, which they did in 1997 and most recently in 2011. NASA used to be in charge of repavementing of the airstrip, but not anymore as far as I know.

In April 1967, LAN airlines introduced flights from Santiago to Easter Island, and on January 16, 1968, the Santiago-Easter Island flight was extended to Tahiti. In the 1970s the plane that flew to the island was a weekly B-707, before it had been a monthly DC-6B aircraft. The runway had originally been extended and paved for use as a U.S. base. In 1993, with the new wider and longer runway, flight service was extended to twice-weekly replacing the Boeing 707 with a Boeing 767-200ER. In more recent times the island has seen the Boeing 767-300ER, Airbus A340, and the Boeing Dreamliner 787, receiving as many as three flights from Santiago in one day.


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