For the first time in its history, NASA plans to consider the safety of the public during launches and landings of the space shuttle. It will institute plans for crowd control at the Kennedy Space Center and use a remote airstrip in New Mexico to land the orbiter if it encounters problems during reentry.
No member of the public has been injured by a U.S. spaceflight, even though thousands of pieces of wreckage rained down on Texas when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003.
"For the first time, NASA managers will have the tools to factor in public safety for landings of the space shuttle," said Bryan O'Connor, NASA's chief safety and mission assurance officer. "The new policy includes controlling risk -- where you put people during launch, and how many people would be invited to witness the launch event."
The safety measures are described in the latest version of NASA's implementation plan for the space shuttle's post-Columbia return to flight, currently scheduled for a three-week launch window beginning May 15.
Bill Parsons, the space shuttle program manager, said "we're right on track" preparing shuttle Discovery for launch, but he suggested that engineers will need another month "before we can say [conclusively] whether the date will slip."
O'Connor, in a telephone news conference, said that NASA expects "in excess of 20,000 people" will witness Discovery's launch at Kennedy Space Center, and that officials "will pay close attention to where people are located" to keep them well away from the blast effects of the liftoff.
O'Connor said Kennedy will remain the primary landing site for returning shuttles, with Edwards Air Force Base in California as the first fallback. But should some potential danger loom, NASA will direct the orbiter to land on a government missile range in White Sands, N.M.
O'Connor said that, although the shuttle has duplicate safety systems, even modest mechanical difficulties could reduce the margin of safety. He added that because the shuttle -- which glides to a landing -- has little maneuverability, controllers would prefer to point it away from populated areas.
"This is a risk trade," O'Connor said. "We want to make sure you have good weather out there, and you have to consider crew safety. But, for the first time, public safety will be one of the concerns."