NASA Set To Begin Countdown For Classified Shuttle Mission
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ NASA began the countdown early Monday for launching the space shuttle Atlantis on Thursday with five astronauts and an intelligence-gathering satellite.
The clock begin ticking at 12:01 a.m. EST as test director Jerry Crute issued the traditional ″call to stations″ that summoned more than 100 controllers to their computer consoles in the launch control center four miles from the launch pad.
″We’re pressing on; the countdown has started,″ said George Diller, a NASA spokesman.
The call also was a signal for workers at the pad to begin servicing the main engines and removing work platforms from around the base of the spaceship.
Because the mission is classified, the Defense Department and NASA are disclosing few details of the flight. A brief statement was issued Sunday describing the preparations completed earlier in the day with the inspection and closure of the engine compartment.
U.S. officials are mum on the length of the flight and what the astronauts will be doing in orbit, but the official Soviet news agency Tass said Sunday the mission’s main task is to put a new generation reconnaissance satellite, codenamed Lacrosse, into near-Earth orbit.
″The satellite will conduct surveillance of the territory of the Soviet Union with the help of updated radar,″ Tass said in a report from Moscow.
″The Pentagon plans to deploy in the next few years four other similar spy satellites which will play the role of an ‘eye’ for the new strategic bomber B-2, known as stealth,″ the Soviet agency said.
As for the timing of the launch Thursday, reliable sources have said that it should take place about 7 a.m. EST if weather and other conditions are adequate. But officials will say only that launch is scheduled to occur sometime between 6:32 a.m. and 9:32 a.m. They say they will make the time public when the clock reaches the 9-minute mark.
A preliminary weather forecast for Thursday was not favorable, calling for overcast sky, brisk winds and a chance of showers.
Once Atlantis reaches space, NASA plans only two public announcements. The first, four hours after launch, will report briefly on the condition of the spaceship. The second will be a 24-hour advance notice on when the astronauts will land at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The silence will be broken only if a serious problem develops.
The Pentagon contends the secrecy makes it more difficult for Soviet satellites and spy ships prowling off Cape Canaveral to monitor the flight and learn its purpose.
Critics argue that such secrecy is unnecessary because the Soviets, with their intelligence capabilities, undoubtedly already know a great deal about the mission and that once Atlantis’ satellite is in its own orbit, the Soviets will be able to track it precisely and know what it is doing.
The satellite reportedly will gather extremely sharp radar images of military targets as it follows a path that will carry it over 80 percent of the Soviet Union.
The five military astronauts who will fly the mission are scheduled to arrive here Monday from their training base in Houston to make final preparations for launch. They are Navy Cmdr. Robert L. Gibson, the commander; Air Force Lt. Col. Guy S. Gardner, the pilot; and Air Force Col. Richard M. Mullane, Air Force Lt. Col. Jerry L. Ross and Navy Cmdr. William M. Shepherd.
The flight will be the 27th for the space shuttle, the third dedicated totally to the military and the second since the Challenger explosion that killed seven crew members in January 1986. Following the accident, NASA held up flights for 32 months while management and hardware changes were made.
Discovery and a five-man crew returned the shuttle to space with a flight that began Sept. 29.