The U.S. space shuttle Columbia is poised to take off on an intensive research mission Thursday with the first Israeli astronaut. His presence is causing the U.S. space agency, NASA, to maintain even tighter security restrictions than those imposed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Columbia is outfitted with a pressurized research laboratory in which a seven-member crew will conduct science experiments in two shifts around the clock. Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore says the mission is reminiscent of space shuttle flights of the past before the fleet became almost exclusively devoted to space station construction.
"We haven't done a solely science mission since 1999," he said. This will be the first mission in which we haven't had our partners in the international space station with us to enjoy the ride."
Nearly 90 Columbia experiments focus on Earth and space sciences, advanced technology development, and astronaut health and safety. NASA's chief scientist for the mission, John Charles, says the U.S. Congress directed the space agency to conduct such a flight because of the relative lack of research taking place on the station while it is being built.
"This is simulated space station science, although the science itself stands in its own right, with the goal of keeping the scientists who are involved in this kind of activity engaged and productive and moving forward until the space station can assume the leading role in research," John Charles said.
One of the crew members for this shuttle mission is Israeli Air Force pilot Ilan Ramon, his nation's first astronaut. Colonel Ramon's main job is to photograph dust storms in the Mediterranean region to help scientists study the impact they have on the global environment.
Because of his presence, NASA has taken strict precautions to protect the flight and the visiting Israeli delegation. Israeli Space Agency Director General Aby Har-Evan says the tight security is new to him.
"I can tell you that when I went to a restaurant, I had two policemen [following] after me with a car, and I'm not used to this kind of [security], so it's a little bit difficult for me to compare it," he said.
For the launch itself, NASA will expand the no-fly and no-sail zones around its Florida base, deploy military jets to patrol skies and armed personnel to guard the area, and restrict public access to the launch base.
These are the same tough measures in effect for every launch since terrorists attacked New York and Washington in 2001, although NASA security chief David Saleeba says the flight and sailing prohibitions around the launch pad will be enforced three hours earlier than usual.
"We have an Israeli astronaut and obviously that's going to offer a higher profile for this particular launch," he said. "We're monitoring all intelligence, we're using other agencies' assets for intelligence, as we do for every launch, and I guess our antennas are up more [attention is higher] than usual."
However, Colonel Ramon does not consider himself a terrorist target. His focus, he says, is on the mission, not potential threats. As the son of a survivor of a Nazi death camp in World War II, he is carrying into flight a drawing by a 14-year-old Jewish boy named Peter Ginz who perished in one.
"The drawing is as he imagined the Earth looking from the moon. This is kind of a symbolic drawing that I'm taking with me to symbolize the spirit of this boy," he said.
The Columbia mission was originally meant to fly in early 2000, but was postponed several times because of technical problems with the entire shuttle fleet and to make way for higher priority flights to the space station and the Hubble Space Telescope.