'Endeavour' blasts off amid tight security
By CARRIE JOHNSON
CAPE CANAVERAL -- With fighter jets circling protectively nearby, space shuttle Endeavour blasted into a gray-blue twilight sky at 5:19 p.m. Wednesday, the first launch since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
The countdown was called "flawless" by NASA officials, despite a last-minute security breach when a Piper aircraft flew within 24 miles of the shuttle about an hour before liftoff.
The single-engine airplane was determined not to be a serious threat, and -- after being escorted from the area by a fighter jet -- the pilot landed at a nearby Sanford airport before the launch.
The quick military response was just one example of the unprecedented security measures put into place for the 17th launch of Endeavour.
In addition to the F-15s, F-16s and Apache helicopters patrolling the airspace around the shuttle, military officials used an extremely powerful radar tower carried by a 5-ton truck to monitor the 200 miles around the shuttle and 100,000 feet above it.
The radar is typically deployed in remote locations during times of conflict and was used in Kosovo and the Gulf War, said Maj. Mike Rein, a spokesman for the Air Force.
"We can't afford to be reactive in a situation like this," he said. "The measures we're taking are much stricter than before, but they're appropriate for a nation at war."
At stake is the only location in the world where a shuttle can be launched, Rein said. If Endeavour was struck by a terrorist-controlled airplane, the damage from an explosion of the volatile shuttle fuel would be so extensive, it would ruin the site and grind the space program to an indefinite halt.
"You would lose access to manned space flight for months, maybe even years," Rein said.
The Air Force set up a 30-mile "no-fly zone" around the launch site at 11 p.m. Monday, barring all civilian airplanes from the area until an hour after the shuttle safely lifted off.
Fighter jets circled the shuttle Tuesday and Wednesday, cruising at an altitude so high they couldn't be seen from the ground.
But the jets were obviously there, as the pilot of the Piper quickly discovered about 4:05 p.m. Wednesday.
Within minutes of wandering into the no-fly zone, the small plane had an F-15 jet on its tail. The fighter jet escorted the Piper out of the area as the Federal Aviation Administration made radio contact.
Col. Sam Dick, 45th Space Wing Vice-Commander, said the plane was not flying toward the launch site and never seriously threatened the mission.
It was the second time an aircraft had flown into the restricted area. On Tuesday, a Bell 214 Transportation helicopter flew within the 30-mile radius and was intercepted by a fighter jet. The pilot, 67-year-old Kenneth Guthrie of Cougar, Wash., made an emergency landing in a nearby field. He was questioned by Brevard County sheriff's deputies and released.
While the Air Force monitored the skies, NASA set up new security restrictions on land. As a further hedge against a terrorist attack, access to the space center was tightly controlled during the launch. For the first time in the 20-year history of the shuttle program, cars were prohibited along the causeways in the sprawling complex, blocking spectators from some of the best viewing spots.
The goal of Endeavour's 11-day mission is to deliver water, equipment and supplies to the international space station. The shuttle will also pick up crew members who have been on the station since Aug. 10 and drop off a three-member replacement team.
Endeavour is scheduled to rendezvous with the space station on its third flight day. A spacewalk is planned for the sixth day of the mission, when astronauts Linda Godwin and Dan Tani will wrap insulating blankets on the two cylindrical mechanisms that rotate the station's solar wings.
The cylinders had been showing extreme temperature fluctuations, which could result in long-term damage, said Kelly Humphries, a NASA spokesman.
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