Security for the Thursday's scheduled lift off of the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour is expected to be the tightest ever for an American space mission. The protective measures include a halt in air and sea traffic around the launch pad and a patrol of U.S. military aircraft.
The flight of Endeavour will be the first shuttle mission since terrorists attacked New York and Washington, and the U.S. government is taking no chances.
"We're going to take all reasonable available measures to protect America's access to space," says Colonel Sam Dick, vice commander of the air force detachment at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which traditionally provides launch security for NASA. "Whatever comes, we will be prepared. That's what we're here for," he says.
Non-military flights must stay at least 55 kilometers away from the shuttle, a distance several times further than normal. Aircraft flying 20 kilometers beyond that perimeter will require special government clearance and must maintain steady contact with air traffic controllers while within that range. In addition, the normal maritime security zone has been expanded from five to 120 kilometers out to sea for three hours before takeoff.
Colonel Dick says fighter jets and helicopters will patrol the area and a nearby army base has installed a sophisticated new radar system capable of detecting all aircraft flying within a 300 kilometer radius.
"This is an unprecedented level of effort. It certainly is appropriate considering that the United States is at war and this is an area where we know terrorists did frequent," Colonel Dick said. "The threat is terrorism and we want to assure the safe and secure access to space is guaranteed."
The space shuttle will ferry a three-man U.S.-Russian crew to the space station to replace the one in orbit and tons of supplies to support them for the next few months.
But it will also carry special cargo to commemorate the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Among the load will be six-thousand U.S. flags that will be presented to the families of the victims when Endeavour returns from orbit. Also on the cargo manifest are New York City police badges and patches and a New York Fire Department flag to honor the police officers and fire fighters who died when the World Trade Center collapsed following the terrorist attack.