Security and STS-107

Having contingency plans for many of the more troublesome possible events during launch was a hallmark of the Shuttle program. Developing these plans and training for them was ‘business as usual’ for us. So was hoping they would never be needed.

On-Pad abort (shutdown of the main engines just prior to T-0), the slidewire emergency egress system, Return to Launch Site Abort, Transoceanic Abort Landing, are four we had. Do you know which one was actually used?

One of the major changes in my job happened following the attacks on 9/11/01. Security for launches was never the same after that day.

Let’s go back to that time. Columbia’s launch was a mere sixteen months after 9/11, and only the seventh one after those attacks. Security around the country was transformed for special events and everyday life. Security for Shuttle launches went from an important but local event to one of national significance and regional impact. Declared a National Asset, the Shuttle “enjoyed” the same level of attention and support as the Super Bowl and presidential trips. For those of us trying to get real work done (launching it!), “enjoy” became the euphemism for enduring it while necessarily becoming part of it. The Launch Director became part of the security system, big time.

Obviously, I can’t say a lot about the specifics, but rest assured we were well protected. The posture for launches before 9/11 was probably about 10% of what we had after in terms of complexity and impact. Before, we cleared certain areas of KSC and CCAFS of visitors and employees to protect them from a launch accident. Afterward, we cleared much more area to also protect us from a possible attack. Ocean exclusion zones expanded, and we had many more assets to clear and secure the area. Lockdown of the land areas became more important and started earlier in the launch campaign. Clearing local and regional airspace was the most significant change, and the most difficult to plan and execute. Airports and airline routes were affected like never before.

The DOD stepped in, rightfully, and thankfully so. They had the knowledge, experience, and assets to pull it off. Integrating their operation and responsibilities into the launch countdown process was a tremendous amount of work, but was required. It was a contingency plan we hoped would never be needed.

Fourteen years ago this week we conducted our final launch security simulation with well over a dozen local, state, and federal agencies participating. We had a special area for their reps in the LCC with links back to their supporting staff. Dedicated communications capability from me to the DOD was tested one final time. Ground, sea, and air assets participated. A subset of the launch team was on hand as were a few shuttle program managers. A simulated airspace violation was declared and we reacted, and reacted well. The sim ended with Columbia in orbit. The plans were tweaked just a little then finalized. This greater team was ready for the real thing.

It was the fourth sim we held in preparation for STS-107. Why so much attention for this mission? The prior seven had less intrusive and expensive “tabletop sims” – usually no real air assets flying for instance. Well, in addition to the (now normal) practice of protecting the shuttle, Ilan Ramon was flying as the first Israeli astronaut, and our intelligence community friends were “concerned.” Security was expanded for STS-107 like no other launch before or since. Without details, we postulated all sorts of possibilities that could affect launch, and protected for all of them. It was a tremendously successful exercise of cooperation between so many agencies that shared a common goal.

Lots of work and expense? You bet. But it was most thorough protection against the unlikely that we ever did.

And it would pay off.

Next week: Launch Day

The STS-107 crew trains for an emergency evacuation with the M-113 armored personnel carrier during TCDT week. (NASA photo KSC-02PD-1938)

Author: Mike Leinbach

Mike was the final Space Shuttle Launch Director at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. He led the launch team for all Shuttle missions from August 2000 to the end of the program in 2011, giving the final "go" for every launch.

3 thoughts on “Security and STS-107”

  1. Mike, quick question regarding security and safety – I hope this question doesn’t pop into the ‘I must decline to answer’ category! If it does, I apologize ahead of time.

    Oftentimes as a launch enthusiast, one of the most frustrating things is a late-in-the-count intrusion into the exclusion zones by an errant aircraft or boat/ship. I’m sure it was just as frustrating for the launch team as well –

    The question is – the launch exclusion zones that extend out from KSC/CCAFS (and, presumably other launch facilities in the US), was the purpose of those exclusion zones more so to protect the vehicle? Or is it to prevent hardware from landing on thrill seekers, or both? Was more of an importance put on either?

    Thanks again for a great article.


    1. Good question. Thanks. We essentially had 2 exclusion zones. One was the launch impact area designed to protect employees at the launch site and the public outside the site from a rocket on some sort of really errant trajectory. These did not change after 9/11 since they were based on the vehicle and its flight path early in ascent. The other zone changed a lot after 9/11 as we were protecting the Shuttle and crew from potential threats from the land, sea, and air. The most significant impact on the public came from our expanded airspace on launch day. Local airport operations were affected as were flight paths into and out of the larger commercial airports in central Florida. Airport managers were 100% behind our efforts even though it caused some fairly significant workarounds. They completely understood and just asked that we minimize the effects as much as possible, which we did. Suffice to say, they hated scrubs as much as we did! Thanks again for the question.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Mike, I was a site coordinator at Pad-B for the last 17 years of the shuttle program. Total of 35 years on the shuttle program. It was a labor of love. I’ve enjoyed reading your articles.

    TC (Tamaria Crabtree)

    Liked by 1 person

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