NASA to Better Protect Public

NASA (search) said Tuesday it will institute strict crowd control for space shuttle launches and landings, and rely more on a seldom-used touchdown site in New Mexico, to better protect the public once flights resume in a few months.

Columbia's breakup during re-entry forced a re-evaluation of the space agency's public safety policy. More than 85,000 pounds of debris rained down on Texas and Louisiana as Columbia headed toward its Cape Canaveral landing strip in February 2003. No one was injured by the falling pieces.

"Philosophically, what we're trying to do ... is to ensure that whatever it is we're doing, does not add significantly to the overall risk that the public already accepts," said Bryan O'Connor, chief of safety and mission assurance and a former shuttle commander.

No one on the ground has ever been hurt by a U.S. spaceflight.

O'Connor said that when Discovery (search) lifts off on the first post-Columbia flight, as early as mid-May, it will be the first shuttle mission in which public safety is factored into deciding where to bring the spacecraft home.

Kennedy Space Center will remain the primary landing site, but only if the shuttle has no problems that might endanger people on the ground, such as a problem with the flight-control system or damage to the ship's thermal skin.

In that case, the shuttle would be directed to White Sands, N.M., a remote, dusty missile range that has seen a shuttle landing only once, back in 1982.

"This is a risk trade," O'Connor said. "You'd have to be sure that all other things being equal, that you have good weather there, that there's not some other matter like, for example, crew safety or you're about to run out of consumables because you've already been on orbit for a couple of days, waiting to come down. All those things will be factored in, but for the first time now, public safety will be one of those factors."

As for shuttle launches, the number of people allowed to gather at the three- to four-mile safety perimeter will be greatly reduced, as will the size of the crowd at the Kennedy runway for landing. NASA will also bar people from being beneath the final glide path.

Unlike an airplane, a space shuttle glides to a landing and cannot change its flight path once the braking rockets are fired one hour before touchdown.

In unveiling the 288-page plan, NASA said it is looking increasingly difficult to stick to the May 15 launch date for Discovery, which is still in the hangar undergoing last-minute repairs and inspections. Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said he will re-evaluate the launch date in mid-April.

The delays in getting the shuttle ready to be moved to the launch pad — a step now targeted for early April — are for technical reasons, such as wiring inspections and landing-gear checks.

As far as meeting the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's 15 recommendations for resuming shuttle flights, seven have been fully met and another is on the verge of being fulfilled. Of the remaining seven, virtually all of the necessary paperwork has been submitted to the task force that is overseeing NASA's return-to-flight effort.

The task force will meet March 31 to consider NASA's progress.

NASA estimates the return-to-flight expenses will exceed $1.6 billion