April 27, 2006

Rounding Up Roadkill for Shuttle Safety

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- NASA is trying to rid the Kennedy Space Center of vultures after the shuttle struck one of the large birds during lift-off last year on the first flight after the Columbia disaster.

The space center has set up what it calls a "road kill posse" to quickly clear as many carcasses as possible from the 6,000-acre site, in hopes of encouraging the vulture population to relocate by cutting off its food supply.

When shuttle Discovery lifted off the launch pad last July on the first flight since the 2003 Columbia accident, it hit a vulture during its climb to orbit.

Discovery did not suffer any damage that time, from the vulture or from the chunks of foam that fell off its fuel tank during launch. But NASA fears collisions with the large, carrion-eating birds could damage shuttle heat shields, leaving the spacecraft vulnerable to an accident like the one that killed Columbia's seven astronauts.

"We need everyone's help," the agency wrote in newsletters distributed to the space center's work force last week. "A crew will be sent to quickly remove the carrion before the vultures are attracted to the free meal."

About 500 pounds of animal carcasses have been removed since the program began two weeks ago, the center said.

In addition to picking up dead animals, the space center said it was employing other tactics to discourage the vultures, including testing a sound system that would broadcast loud noises and spraying a noxious chemical. The center said it would also try to trap and remove the birds.

The agency is preparing to resume shuttle launches this summer from the space center, which lies within a wildlife preserve.

Its roads are dotted with the bodies of possums, raccoons, feral pigs, squirrels, birds and other animals fallen victim to traffic. The center is asking anyone who sees dead animals to call a "roadkill" hotline to report the location.