Shuttle safety and security are paramount

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- When the space shuttle lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-117, most people will be concerned with what goes on up in the sky, but what happens on the ground is just as important.

As the 45th Space Wing commander is responsible for public safety on the Eastern Range, the wing does its utmost to ensure that civilians on the ground are not endangered by the launches from Cape Canaveral AFS or KSC.

Shuttle launches are more complex than Atlas or Delta launches said Curt Botts, Chief of Risk Analysis for the 45th SW Safety Office, "Their sheer size dictates that."

Before the shuttle ever reaches the launch pad, however, the Safety Office plans for possible contingencies.

Bill Snyder, 45th Safety shuttle flight analyst, receives data from NASA and his department plots trajectories of the shuttle and projected impact locations for the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters (SRBs) when they detach from the orbiter.

"We use this information to build what's called 'destruct criteria' to protect the public and keep the vehicle out of populated areas," said Mr. Snyder.

The office then distributes "notice to airmen and mariner" letter, NOTAMs, informing pilots as well as ships where the danger areas are and when to avoid them.

The destruct criteria are used to develop mission rules that govern the allowable flight behavior.

On launch day, two mission flight control officers watch the flight and ensure that the shuttle goes where it should. The officers each have the power to initiate "command destruct" if something goes wrong. This is different from the additional automatic destruct system present on expendable launch vehicles, such as an Atlas rocket.

For expendable launch vehicles, "you need to be able to tell it to blow up, and you have to let it if it needs to," said Mr. Botts.

While the shuttle has a command destruct system installed on the SRBs, the orbiter itself has no automatic destruct system. If, after SRB separation, the shuttle begins to go off course before reaching orbit, the crew becomes agents of public safety and it is up to them to shut down the engines if necessary to prevent impacts on population sites. There are also contingency operations to try to get the shuttle back safely, Mr. Botts said.

While Flight Analysis determines destruct criteria based upon errant flight behavior, Mr. Botts' risk analysis department studies the hazards of the launch vehicle. This includes calculating risks caused by debris landing where it shouldn't, release of propellants, explosion effects, like window breakage, or if present, release of any nuclear material.

"We provide that information to the space lift commander who weighs that risk against an acceptable level," said Mr. Botts. The SRBs are equipped with a flight termination system. This is required "especially if they get loose and start flying around like loose missiles," said Mr. Botts. "They have no guidance system; they could go anywhere."

Besides making sure the general public outside the confines of the base is safe, the 45th Space Wing works to ensure the security of those working within KSC and CCAFS.

The 45th Security Forces Squadron maintains a contract with Space Gateway Support (SGS) to provide security at the Cape.

These contractors have the same power as active duty security forces to detain individuals and possibly deny access to the base. Their Operations Branch provides three shifts of armed qualified security specialists who staff static posts and vehicle patrols 24/7.

On launch day, security forces are a contingent of the Launch Disaster Control Group under the 45th Mission Support Group and provide access control of hazardous areas. All launches, manned or unmanned, have an LDCG which monitors the launch and can provide immediate assistance to personnel in the event of a catastrophe. For the upcoming shuttle launch, the LDCG is under the direction of Dr. Elbert "Sonny" Witt, Detachment 1 45th Mission Support Group director of operations.

"Launch day priorities include making sure everyone's safe and that bad people don't get in," said Dr. Witt.

However, that doesn't mean that security is simple, he said. "When we launch large vehicles like the Delta IV, we have to clear nearly the entire industrial area. That's a lot of people, and that's purely up to security. It's a big job. This is one of the things the 45th Space Wing does well."