Space shuttle launch times no longer a secret
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: December 3, 2004
NASA has quietly lifted post-9/11 security restrictions that included keeping shuttle launch times secret until the day before liftoff. NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said today the agency's revised policy governing what NASA tells the news media and the public in advance of shuttle processing milestones mirrors procedures in effect prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks in New York and Washington.
"It's because our security level is lower and our security posture is better than it was prior to 9/11," he said by telephone from NASA headquarters in Washington.
For the record, and assuming NASA can complete post-Columbia safety upgrades in time, the target launch time for the next shuttle mission, STS-114, is approximately 4:11 p.m. EDT (2011 GMT) on May 14, based on the projected orbit of the international space station. The actual launch period opens May 12, but post-Columbia lighting constraints for photo documentation are not met until two days later.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorists attacks, NASA managers imposed unprecedented security procedures similar in many respects to those once employed for classified military flights.
Starting with mission STS-110 in April 2002, NASA stopped announcing when a shuttle countdown would begin and when a crew would arrive at the Kennedy Space Center for final preparations. Broad shuttle launch windows were announced in advance, but the exact launch times were not revealed until the day before liftoff. News organizations using widely available satellite tracking software capable of determining launch times with fair accuracy agreed not to publish the information until the agency made its formal announcement.
In addition, shuttle processing milestones that normally were open to the media - the terminal countdown demonstration test at the launch pad, for example - were closed and crew itineraries were no longer announced in advance.
Braukus said today procedures in effect for news coverage of STS-114 will be virtually identical to those in place prior to 9/11. But agency officials reserved the right to impose stricter procedures on a case-by-case basis and it remains to be seen what, if any, policy changes may be in the works for international journalists, non-NASA VIPs and other "special guests" of the agency.