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NASA and a Mystery : For Easter Island, a Frantic Year

February 11, 1986|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

EASTER ISLAND, Chile — Normally, there is lobster every day on Easter Island, but the latest newspapers are available only on Wednesday, when the weekly flight arrives from distant South America.

Such isolation is appropriate for a mid-Pacific mote that proudly calls itself "the loneliest little island in the world." Today, volcanoes still outnumber discotheques, three to two, but that may change. This is a frantic year.

Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who put Easter Island on the map, is back after three decades, stalking again in inquisitive reverence among giant stone carvings by the sea. As much a legend among the islanders as the statues themselves, Heyerdahl has returned to seek new answers to an old mystery--how did a primitive people move the massive statues into place?

Easter Island jumped centuries in the mid-1960s when the United States built an air base here. Now, like Heyerdahl, 71, the Americans are also returning to the island.

Emergency NASA Runway

Millions of dollars from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will stretch Runway One Zero at Mataveri Airport to 10,704 feet and drape it with Space Age electronics as an emergency runway for the U.S. space shuttle. No road on the 55-square mile island is paved, but should California-launched shuttles ever need to abort after launch, Mataveri will be waiting.

"If the astronauts come down here, we will get them out," promised fireman Pedro Ojeda, who drives the airport's lone Oshkosh crash truck.

Here's Heyerdahl wrestling with an elusive yesterday, the Americans jousting with tomorrow and cruel space and both counting on splendidly lonely Easter Island. What is happening here is as exotic as the ancient fireside tales told here of statues that walked onto the beach.

And it is heady stuff for the 2,060 residents of an island 2,230 miles from South America, where spice is usually provided by an average of 40 tourists a week.

Of the total population, there are about 1,200 people of Polynesian stock, 64 of them pure Polynesians. There are 700 school kids, 700 workers, half of them government-employed, and 700 idlers who gossip pretty much full time. Gossip, called varu varu, is Easter Island's national sport.

Fierce Rivalries

Everyone knows everyone else on the island and most are related. Social, political and economic rivalries--many of them over land, which only the Polynesian majority may own--are as fierce as in most small towns and are waged sotto voce .

On indolent tropical nights with a fresh breeze stirring under an impossible canopy of stars, it is easy, thrilling and frightening for varu varu to conjure up a coming invasion of American spacemen.

There is even one theory that some other planet's astronauts have already been here and that they were the inspiration for the island's 1,000 majestic stone figures. Good varu varu, but Heyerdahl for one isn't buying. "Why would spacemen have left broken stone picks in the quarries?" he said. "They would have had better tools."

Gossip apart, Chile's agreement with NASA to allow use of Mataveri for emergency shuttle landings is straightforward and parallels others the United States has reached with countries as diverse as Spain and Senegal, according to Joel Cassman, science attache at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago.

Up to 20 Americans will come for short stays as backup for future launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which are designed to put the shuttle into polar orbits. The NASA schedule, announced before the Challenger disaster and now subject to modification, called for two launches per year in which Mataveri would be a long-shot emergency landing strip.

Wagging Tongues

The shuttle crews will be military and their mission classified, but Cassman insists that does not change the essential civilian nature of the enterprise: "If a general flags a taxi, it's still a civilian cab." Still, the military component is enough to set island tongues wagging.

"We don't want 'Star Wars' here. We are afraid if war comes we will be a target. This arrangement was reached without consulting us, and without our consent," said Julio Alberto Hotu, a retired Chilean navy petty officer.

Hotu and sidekick Juan Chavez also say the project is fraught with danger for Easter Island's delicate ecology and its archeological treasures. They head an ad hoc 36-member council of elders, one member for each island surname, and their objections are belated echoes of complaints raised by opponents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet when the NASA air strip was first proposed.

Rado Miro Pomic, a former presidential candidate, charged in a recent 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."

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