EASTER ISLAND, Chile -- U.S. and Chilean officials inaugurated a runway extension on remote Easter Island that will enable its airport to serve as an emergency landing field for future space shuttle missions.
Located in the mid-Pacific some 2,350 miles off the Chilean coast, Easter Island is best known for its archaeological mysteries - mysterious giant heads carved out of volcanic rock by stone-age Polynesian natives.
The $7.5 million airport improvement was funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA plans to use the island as a contingency landing site for its shuttle program when polar orbit flights are launched in 1991 over the Pacific from Vandenberg Air Base in California.
U.S. Ambassador to Chile Harry Barnes said Sunday, 'The airport extension and modernization will offer greater security to travelers who visit this island of rich artistry.' Barnes said, 'The runway is a further link in a chain of international solidarity to protect the lives of the explorers of space, the astronauts.'
'NASA has installed the most modern landing equipment that any major international airport in the world has,' said Joel Cassman, science attache at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago.
Cassman said NASA uses civilian airports in Spain, Senegal and Japan as contingency landing sites on the equatorial-orbit shuttle flights that were launched until 1986 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA was authorized to use Easter Island as an emergency landing site for the shuttle in the Mataveri Agreement signed August 2, 1985, by the U.S. and Chilean governments.
The agreement allows NASA to put a maximum of 23 technicians on the island for a period no longer than three weeks prior to and during each launch.
The island's Mataveri Airport runway was lengthened by 1,387 feet to 11,000 feet, the minimum distance needed for a space shuttle to land.
NASA also installed sophisticated landing aids and stronger approach and landing lights, officials said. They said a sophisticated microwave landing system will be in place before the polar orbit shuttle flights get under way.
Officials said the airstrip extension, undertaken entirely within the airport perimeter, had not damaged the island's archaeological treasures, the 600-odd huge granite heads called Moais that dot the tiny treeless island.
The long-faced statues, many of them 30 feet high, stand around the island like imperturbable sentinels looking out to sea. Archaeologists have yet to discover how native sculptors managed to transport the 20-ton stone busts and stand them up around the island.
Local officials welcomed the airport improvement because it will help boost tourism, the main source of income for the island's 2,000 inhabitants of Polynesian descent.
The longer runway allows wide-bodied jumbo jets to land and could lead airlines to include an Easter Island stopover on flights across the Pacific.
The island is currently linked to mainland Chile and Tahiti by a twice-weekly Boeing 707 flight of the national airline Lan Chile.