Space shuttle Atlantis set for launch (but don't tell anyone)

Before launching the space shuttle Discovery in September, NASA issued a 72-page press kit to describe the mission and its astronauts in meticulous detail. For the next launch, Dec. 1, there is no press kit at all. The difference is that Flight 27 is a military mission flown by military men to launch a secret military payload. All that NASA and the Air Force will say is that the launch will be between 6:32 and 9:32 a.m. EST and that there will be five crew members.

Because the Air Force is in charge of STS-27, there is none of the hoopla that accompanies other shuttle flights. No daily morning briefings on the readiness of the ship, no launch-day-minus-one briefings on crew, mission, and payload. No industry representatives handing out fact sheets and literature.

The Air Force undoubtedly would prefer that no one even see the launch, but it is difficult to hide the liftoff of something 184 feet tall, trailing fire for 700 feet. So, instead, the Air Force tries to give as few advance details as possible.

The flight of Atlantis will be only the third time that a shuttle mission is strictly for military pursuits.

Although the cargo is secret, word leaks out. Atlantis, according to reports, is carrying an intelligence-gathering satellite that, once in its orbit, will fly over 80 percent of the Soviet Union. The two earlier military missions, both in 1985, put satellites into orbit, one to eavesdrop and two for communications.

The Space Act of 1958, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, specified that the agency was to develop peaceful uses of space in an open program. But the military always has had and will continue to have a strong role in both NASA and space.

Atlantis's crew, all military officers, planned to fly here yesterday from their training base in Houston to make final preparations for launch. Instead of making the usual arrival comments to the news media, they have been advised to say nothing.

The crew commander is Navy Comdr. Robert Gibson. The pilot is Air Force Lt. Col. Guy Gardner, and the mission specialists are Col. Richard Mullane and Lt. Col. Jerry Ross of the Air Force, and Navy Comdr. William Shepherd.

After Atlantis reaches orbit, NASA plans only two public statements. 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.

Defense Department officials contend the secrecy makes it more difficult for Soviet satellites and spy ships operating 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, already know a great deal about the mission.

In fact, the official Soviet news agency Tass said Sunday: ``The main task of the secret mission is to put into near-Earth orbit a new generation reconnaissance satellite, code-named Lacrosse. The satellite will conduct surveillance of the territory of the Soviet Union with the help of updated radar. 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.''

A preliminary weather forecast for Thursday called for unfavorable conditions at the launch site: overcast sky, brisk winds and possible showers.

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