Shuttle team shoos away vultures
Bird-strike during liftoff could endanger crew, NASA says
By Marsha Walton
NASA says birds can pose a serious threat to the orbiter and crew.
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- Vultures and space shuttles do not fly together well.
When the shuttle Discovery launched July 26, 2005, a turkey buzzard flew into the spacecraft's external tank about three seconds after liftoff. The bird's body fell away from the tank and apparently did no damage.
But NASA took the collision seriously, gathering experts to create a "Bird Abatement Plan" to reduce the risks for future shuttle missions.
Their plans will be in action for the scheduled July 1 launch of Discovery.
Turkey and black vultures can weigh 4 to 6 pounds -- more than the 1.6 pound piece of foam that damaged the shuttle Columbia in 2003, leading to the deaths of seven astronauts.
"It is a serious risk. It is a significant risk to the orbiter," John Shannon, chairman of the Mission Management Team, said at a NASA news conference Thursday afternoon.
Officials from NASA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a veterinary pathologist from Walt Disney's Animal Kingdom, joined the group to explore ways to manage the avian population around the launch pad.
Vultures and hundreds of other bird species enjoy a haven on the Florida Space Coast. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge overlays much of the Kennedy Space Center. Within its forests, coastal dunes and marshes are about 500 species of wildlife, 15 of which are on the threatened or endangered species list.
On Thursday, NASA contractors began rounding up and securing dozens of vultures. They expect to capture about 150 by launch time.
"We issued a permit to NASA to trap and hold black vultures and turkey vultures," said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the southeast region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The animals are still protected," he said.
The birds will be released after the launch.
Another tactic used by the space agency is the "Road-kill Roundup." Since April, employees and visitors to the Kennedy Space Center have been encouraged to report dead animals on roads near the launch site. Contractors remove the animals so the vultures will have to fly a little farther for meals.
MacKenzie says about 500 pounds of dead raccoons, opossums, armadillos, hogs, even alligators, have been removed every week.
As launch time approaches, NASA will use other tools to keep watch on the vultures. Remote cameras will track the big birds. Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said radar will look for birds massing near the launch pad. And he said NASA officials would hold the countdown if birds were to become a threat to the shuttle's safety.
NASA may also use loud noises to scare the birds away. Many airports use propane cannons, which create a sound like a shotgun to scare birds from runways.
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