The space agency, unwittingly violating its own security plan, said today that countdown preparations will start at 1 a.m. PST Monday for the launch of the shuttle Discovery on Wednesday on a secret military flight.
For recent shuttle flights, countdowns have run about 54 hours, including the one for Discovery's last mission in November. A standard countdown would end at about 7 a.m. PST Wednesday.
NASA spokesman Hugh Harris said the announcement was the result of a misunderstanding over security restrictions for the first classified shuttle mission. Officials later revised a written status report to delete a reference to when the countdown will begin.
"No announcement of anything having to do with the beginning of the countdown . . . will be given with respect (to) the real time associated with the real launch," National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman Charles Redmond said.
Discovery is scheduled to blast off sometime between 10:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. PST Wednesday, carrying into orbit what defense sources say is an Air Force "signals intelligence" spy satellite capable of monitoring Soviet communications.
For the first time in the shuttle program, the exact launch time is secret. The Air Force hopes the uncertainty will hamper Soviet efforts to track the shuttle or its sensitive payload.