Blast-off is set for Thursday, but the time is a secret too. Until Wednesday.
The crew will enjoy the usual send-off breakfast complete with cake and suit up for the ride into orbit, but for the first time since NASA crews ferried classified Defense Department satellites into orbit, the space agency won't be showing any of the prelaunch activities live on television.
With its second shuttle mission of the year and the third flight since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, NASA unveils its new security blanket, holes and all.
"It provides the appearance of security, without the reality," said Syracuse University public policy professor Harry Lambright, whose research has focused on NASA.
"It has been in the interest of the agency to be open, to be public. The terrorist issue has created a new environment and NASA feels its has to respond in some way," Lambright said. "You get an ambiguous decision because it goes against the grain of the agency's basic philosophy and its own self-interest. NASA needs publicity or it wouldn't even be getting the budget that it is able to get."
NASA has decided to withhold the exact time of Thursday's launch until 24 hours before liftoff, citing national security concerns. But because the shuttle is scheduled to link up with the International Space Station, blastoff must occur within about a 10-minute period when the outpost flies over the Kennedy Space Center.
NASA not only publishes when the station flies over various parts of the world, but provides the data for anyone with a computer and an orbital tracking shareware program to determine the station's flight path themselves.
"This notion of not disclosing the time of launch is rather silly because it is a straight-forward matter to calculate for any mission that is headed for the space station," said Steve Aftergood, senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientist. "The launch window is dictated not by NASA but by objective mission factors."
"If there is a real security issue here then NASA needs to take other measures that are more effective, not this kind of phony security," Aftergood said.
NASA says its new security policy will be in effect for "the foreseeable future," according to spokesman Kyle Herring. The agency plans another space station mission in April before what might be NASA's real security concern -- flying the first Israeli astronaut on a 16-day research mission in July.
"If I were terrorist that would be the one I would go after," Lambright said. "The whole point of terrorism is to get noticed. But the shuttle is really not a high-visibility issue."
Herring said NASA's security policy has been under development since the Sept. 11 attacks and is not related to any specific mission. Launch times for the two shuttle missions already flown since then were not classified since the information already had been widely distributed.
Herring had no comment about how a news blackout on crew activities and launch times would help thwart a terrorist attack.
"That's the plan for now and we'll review it after each mission," he said.
John Pike, who heads the Arlington, Va.-based research organization Global Security, says NASA's actions mirror the Bush Administration's emphasis on imagining what might happen rather than on analysis of actual terrorist strategies.
"They start with the premise of: Will this make a good Tom Clancy book?" said Pike "In principle, you cannot exclude the possibility that someone will try to assassinate the astronauts as they walk out to go to the launch pad. You can't preclude the possibility that a North Korean submarine will be stationed off the Cape with plans to shoot a surface-to-air missile at the shuttle.
"But it is not reality-based. The security measures at the Cape are incompatible with security measures at hotels, conference centers and sporting events," he said.
"There are a lot of other places that are potential targets that are not taking heroic measures. If it's a choice between commando teams trying to assassinate the astronauts versus suicide bombers blowing themselves up at shopping center food courts, I'm more worried about the shopping centers," Pike said.
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