U. S. delays rocket amid concern over Nfld oil rigs
Date: Friday, April 08 2005
Topic: Canadian News
Toronto Star, Apr. 07,2005
FROM CANADIAN PRESS
ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. - The U.S. Defence Department's plans to launch a rocket over the North Atlantic were postponed indefinitely today amid concerns in Newfoundland that falling debris could hit offshore oil platforms.
Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams said he was stunned when he learned spent booster rockets from a Titan IV rocket, which was to be launched early Monday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., were expected to fall within 25 kilometres of the Hibernia platform.
Soon after Williams announced evacuation of the platform had begun, Defence Minister Bill Graham emerged from the House of Commons to say the launch had been delayed.
"We strongly urge the United States government not to follow this trajectory but to choose a trajectory which will take their rocket further away from these very important installations," Graham said.
Graham said U.S. officials informed Transport Canada of the launch, as is normal practice with any launches targeted over Canadian waters.
Exxon-Mobil Corp. informed federal officials that the boosters, which are typically jettisoned from the main rocket, posed a threat to its operations.
As a result, federal Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan called U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Graham said the Americans initially delayed the scheduled launch for 48 hours, then postponed it indefinitely.
"It allows them to calculate a new trajectory, or whatever else they're going to do," Graham said.
"In any event, it's no longer 48 hours threatening us; it's an indefinite period of time which will allow the political as well as the military considerations to be taken into account."
Col. Stefano Boccino, of the U.S. Air Force Space Command at Cape Canaveral, said the launch was postponed because of mechanical problems with ground support equipment.
When asked if the missile's trajectory was an issue, he said: "Right now we don't have an answer to that. I believe that will be readdressed once a new launch date is confirmed."
It remains unclear how long the federal government was aware of the rocket's trajectory or when the Americans told Graham they had changed their plans, but Williams said he found out about the launch today.
"This just simply can't happen," Williams said before Graham announced the postponement.
Williams said the Hibernia platform, the Terra Nova development and the drilling rig Glomar Grand Banks are all in the area.
"I don't think the Americans were aware, or had really thought it through, as to how close this was to the Hibernia platform," Williams said following two urgent phone conversations with McLellan and a call to Frank McKenna, Canada's ambassador to the United States.
"Why would they drop a piece of space debris out of the sky and take a chance that it happens to be 15 miles in the right spot? If it's off, it could obviously have very serious consequences."
Each rocket booster weighs more than 10,000 kilograms, he said.
There are 234 crew aboard the Hibernia platform, which is about 315 kilometres southeast of St. John's.
The Terra Nova platform, about 350 kilometres east of the port city, is staffed by about 80, and the drilling rig Glomar Grand Banks has approximately 100 people on board.
Williams said he was also concerned about fishing vessels in the area.
Operators began evacuation of non-essential workers on Hibernia today.
Petro-Canada had decided to evacuate Terra Nova as well, and the drilling rig was to be towed out of the hazard zone over the weekend.
A spokeswoman for the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board said the evacuations would be suspended once the board received confirmation that the launch had been postponed.
Fred Way, acting chairman of the board, had earlier issued a statement warning of the hazards posed by falling space junk.
"While actual contact with one of the installations has a low probability, it would have devastating consequences if it happened," he said.
The launch of the U.S. Air Force Space Command rocket was to be directed by the Pentagon's National Reconnaissance Office. There is a satellite on the Lougheed Martin rocket, though its purpose is classified.
The reconnaissance office designs, builds and operates satellites that gather intelligence to warn of potential trouble spots around the world. It also helps plan military operations and monitor the environment.