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The Miami Herald November 26, 2001

Shuttle will lift off under unprecedented security conditions

By Phil Long

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. _ The space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to lift off Thursday evening, but few people will see it up close because of unprecedented security backed up by elite forces and tons of weaponry.

The Kennedy Space Center will be under the tightest guard against terrorism in the nearly 21-year history of the shuttle program.

"I don't personally know of, nor have I ever heard of, any time when we've gone to this degree of security," said Maj. Mike Rein, spokesman for Air Force security, which is responsible for patrolling the air and sea around the space center. Nearly 20,000 people, many from other states who plan vacations around launches, will be barred from the sprawling complex in a rare decision by NASA officials to prohibit car access to prime viewing areas.

That is painful to space veterans.

"One of the things we like to do at NASA is inspire people, young and old," said retired shuttle astronaut Winston Scott, who grew up in Miami and is now vice president of student affairs at Florida State University.

"When you have to restrict that access, it is going to have a detrimental effect on our ability to excite and educate our young people."

For now, inspiration and education will stand aside for protection. "We are capable of protecting the shuttle against any threat from air, land or sea," Rein said.

Earlier this month, fighter jets circled above the shuttle as it made its long, slow crawl to the seaside launch pad. Later, fighter jets escorted the shuttle crew members as they landed their NASA training planes at the center.

"There has never before been an F-15 fighter flying over a space shuttle as it was rolled out to the pad," Rein said. "There have never been F-16 fighters accompanying the astronauts." Nor has there ever been such a large air security zone around the space center. Since the terrorist attacks, planes must stay 20 miles from the launch pad.

Authorities won't discuss specifics about personnel or equipment to be used on launch day. But the most obvious threats to the shuttle are airplanes, rocket-propelled grenades and short-range shoulder-launched missiles, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a Washington-based defense think tank.

Security at the space center is tight because the shuttle is such a tempting target, said Pike, a former space policy expert with the Federation of American Scientists.

"It is right up there with the Liberty Bell, the Air and Space Museum and the Statue of Liberty," Pike said. "It is one of the visible, unique symbols of America's super power."

EASIER TO DEFEND

But the Kennedy Space Center is more easily defended than many areas, Pike noted, because it covers 34 miles of an easily patrolled barrier island between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean.

Endeavour commander Dom Gorie, a graduate of Miami Palmetto High School and a Persian Gulf combat fighter pilot, said he has no qualms about launching on Thursday.

"I have been well briefed by the Air Force about the security measures taken," Gorie said. "We are totally confident and very, very pleased with everything that has been done with security."

The Endeavour and its crew of seven are headed to the International Space Station, starting with a 7:44 p.m. Thursday launch. If skies are clear, the shuttle should be visible in Miami that night.

The crew includes a new trio of astronaut-scientists who will spend the next few months aboard the station. The Endeavour will also deliver equipment, and its astronauts will make some repairs as the shuttle and space station orbit the earth together for almost 11 days.

But there is recognition that this is a special launch for Endeavour. Last-minute additions to the shuttle's cargo bay include police badges, fire department patches and 6,000 small American flags for those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Three other American flags also will be on board _ one recovered from the World Trade Center ruins, torn and slightly charred but intact; another from the Pentagon attack; and a third found near the site of the Pennsylvania crash.

'A SYMBOL'

"The space shuttle is a symbol of our strength and our unity and our vision in this country," Gorie said. The Endeavour crew will likely present some of the flags, patches and badges to the families of those lost in the attacks.

"I think it will be a significant sign to them that their loved ones were placed in the very highest pinnacle of our thoughts and prayers and wishes," Gorie said. "It has to be a very powerful message to them and to the country." ___


Copyright 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service