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A look at shuttle security after 9/11

By Miles O'Brien
CNN

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CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien at Kennedy Space Center

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- It is interesting how we perceive risk and how we react to it.

If you look at the numbers, a space shuttle flight is certainly a risky proposition. The NASA brain trust has crunched the numbers on the million moving parts that make up a space shuttle stack, and the odds stack up this way:

The possibility of a catastrophic (Challenger-esque) failure of a space shuttle is about one in 125. That is a lot better than it used to be, but still a long way from a sure bet.

Columbia is flying the 113th mission in space shuttle history. And so far there has been only one "Criticality-One" failure, 17 years ago this month. You do the rest of the math.

So I guess it should come as no surprise to you that the astronauts look askance at reporters who ask them to assess the risks of flying with an Israeli astronaut strapped in.

What are the odds terrorists would attack a space shuttle sitting on the launch pad? Even NASA's number crunchers would be hard pressed to come up with a real number, but I think we can agree it would be a much longer shot than the chances the entire spacecraft might blow up on its way to space.

Of course, the space agency is all about taking calculated risks. And here is what goes into its back-of-the-napkin assessment: as an icon of U.S. technological dominance, the space shuttle is a tempting target for terrorists. Even the non-rocket scientists among us would be able to guess that.

To be sure, 500,000 gallons of volatile rocket fuel inside the burnt-orange external fuel tank represents a lot of potential energy. The 9/11 terrorists proved al Qaeda's proclivity with things that fly. And it wouldn't take a huge airliner as a guided missile to cause a terrible launch pad conflagration. A Cessna 172 flown by a determined nut would suffice.

With all that in mind, NASA and the Air Force looked skyward and decided they didn't like what they saw.

Prior to 9/11, the skies near the Kennedy Space Center were surprisingly friendly for general aviation. One evening in September of 1988, I flew in a small Piper Archer from Vero Beach to the Spruce Creek Fly-in community near Daytona.

Discovery was poised on the launch pad, ready for the post-Challenger return-to-flight launch the next day. After calling air traffic controllers at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, we got permission to fly amazingly close to the launch pad.

Guarding the no-fly zone

I will never forget that unique view of a shuttle bathed in Xenon light. It took our breath away. I now feel like the wind has been kicked out of us, knowing I will never be able to take a flight like that again.

The no-fly zone extends 30 nautical miles beyond the shuttle launch pad and is put in place at least four hours before liftoff. That aviation airspace is jealousy guarded with an enhanced radar system, scout planes, helicopters, F-15 fighters, and although the U.S. government won't publicly confirm it, surface-to-air missiles.

During Thursday's countdown, the airspace was not accidentally entered by a general aviation pilot, who would have received a memorable visit from a fighter jet, to say the least.

But during the previous six shuttle launches since 9/1,1 there have been at least a dozen innocent incursions, six of those coming during one frequently delayed launch attempt that left the FAA confused about the time and date of the Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR).

Sad as I am that it has come to this, I realize NASA has no choice. The agency simply must drop a tight security veil on the shuttle, no matter what the real odds of a terrorist attack may be. It wouldn't be prudent to do anything less.

But I have to wonder where the common sense is in some of the other measures that are employed.

One of our correspondents arrived here Wednesday to cover the launch for our service that supplies material to our affiliates NewsSource it is called. She is a citizen of Great Britain who has lived in the United States for a dozen years.

She was rebuffed at the gate, told her pass would not be granted because she is a foreign national and did not apply for access properly in a timely way.

Great Britain? I thought we were allies.

Food for thought

And there was the first launch after 9/11: in late November 2001. The space media were herded into a public park 20 miles from the launch pad, given a thorough search and put on buses for the trip to the shuttle launch pad complex.

There were probably a dozen NASA staffers there, frisking down reporters, producers and technicians who they have known for years. It was a sad joke and I would have laughed had I not considered what a squandering of precious resources it was.

One of the few things we knew with certainty on that tense day was there were no terrorists in that park at that moment. And if we were all being honest, we would say the farce could have made it easier for a real terrorist to launch an attack somewhere else, for lack of manpower.

But where? When? And how? The simple fact is we all feel we have to do something. And while some things make sense, others do not. But for gosh sakes, do something.

Most of our photographers and technicians get temporary badges to cover specific shuttle missions. They are good from launch until landing and they must get new credentials for every launch.

Inexplicably, media with those temp badges cannot walk a half-mile across the parking lot from where I sit now to the KSC cafeteria. Their missed meals are just one more stupid way we say we are fighting the war on terrorism.

To me, it is just another small victory for Osama bin Laden. Food for thought, indeed.


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