Mission Control

NASA faces more than technical challenges when it tries to launch a space shuttle.

What's a government agency to do when tens of thousands of people suddenly come knocking? If you're NASA, you'll open the door and let them in-and just hope you can keep track of them all.

Crowd control was one of the agency's toughest challenges when it launched the shuttle Discovery from Kennedy Space Center in July. As many as 25,000 space enthusiasts converged on the federal compound near Cape Canaveral, Fla., to witness NASA's comeback from the tragedy of Columbia.

Opening the space center to guests on launch day is one way NASA heeds its 1958 charter to share space exploration with the public. Managing the masses is a unique test for a civilian bureaucracy charged with safeguarding billions of dollars' worth of assets. In years past, as many as 60,000 visitors have crowded viewing stands in the danger zone that stretches six or seven miles from the shuttle launchpads. But the Columbia disaster reopened NASA's eyes to the idea of collective risk. The larger the crowd at a shuttle launch or landing, the bigger the chance of a spectator getting injured or killed by falling debris if there's an accident.

When Discovery's sister ship disintegrated during its glide back to Earth in February 2003, 40 tons of debris rained down on East Texas and western Louisiana. At the urging of the Air Force, which operates the Florida range where shuttles take off and touch down, NASA renewed a promise first made in the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger disaster-to limit attendance. The head count for launch attempts on July 13 and July 26 included 10,000 members of the general public; 2,400 relatives and friends of Discovery's seven astronauts; 1,400 journalists from 36 states and the District of Columbia and 32 foreign countries; at least 58 members of Congress and Capitol Hill staffers, and a few thousand other VIPs. First lady Laura Bush and her entourage helicoptered in for the second try, just in time to see Discovery fly.

All were among the assorted space cadets who cause the population of Florida's Space Coast-home to about 500,000 people on an ordinary day-to swell by as much as 50 percent on a launch day. They want to experience the flash, roar and rumble of a rocket as it lurches skyward with 7.5 million pounds of thrust. Only a small percentage of them ever get close enough to get the full effect, because it requires getting inside the space center gates. That was a bigger than usual challenge for Discovery's flight, because terrorism concerns and re-examination of public safety prompted NASA to cut the guest list in half.

Beyond providing head counts, NASA isn't eager to discuss its crowd control operation. "Our security guys have been told not to discuss anything along those lines at all," says Bruce Buckingham, news chief at the Kennedy Space Center. "They basically don't talk to the media anymore." But the difficulty in meeting the security challenge was evident from two vantage points. I saw it as an invited guest for the first launch attempt who plunked down $15 and change for a bus ticket from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to a special grandstand, and as an accredited journalist with a free pass to the closest viewing site. Guests were instructed to bring identification to board their buses on launch day; I never saw any being checked. Reporters were warned that their vehicles would be inspected at the space center gate; the trunk of my rental car rarely got more than a cursory peek. Once I was asked, "You got any luggage or anything back there that I need to check?" and was waved on.

Frequent e-mails to journalists from Michael Rein, chief of Kennedy's media services branch, carried the admonition, "Security will be tight in the post-Sept. 11 environment we live in," and repeatedly reminded foreign reporters that they would be required to ride a bus onto the installation while their domestic colleagues were free to carpool. "In light of the London situation, this will not change," declared a Rein e-mail sent on July 7, the day terrorists attacked the British capitol's public transit system. The policy did change, though. NASA parked the buses the day after the shuttle took off until the day before it came home.

Security seemed especially inconsistent on liftoff day, July 26, and for the first launch attempt, July 13. People going through turnstiles at the visitor complex-fewer than half of whom were bused to viewing sites inside restricted areas-were subjected to metal detectors and detailed bag searches, as usual. They were relieved of nail files, pocket knives and other sharp items, and forced to empty anything that resembled a backpack-regardless of its contents-and return the bags to their cars. By comparison, hundreds of domestic journalists underwent security screening at an off-site parking lot several miles from the base and then drove cars, trucks and vans loaded with large equipment cases through unsecured terrain to reach the press site, about three miles from the launchpads. Their proof of inspection: a piece of paper was given to them at the checkpoint, and they handed it to a guard at the gate.

NASA officials won't explain or defend the discrepancies, but note that no security breaches were reported. Security for Discovery wasn't a "huge stretch" for the company that operates the visitor complex because Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts Inc. typically hosts more than 10,000 visitors on a shuttle launch day, according to marketing chief Debbie Land. "We've come on as a really strong security partner," she says.

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