The new secretary of the Air Force, responding to Senate criticism, expressed confidence Wednesday that the space shuttle complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base will be ready for a safe launching in time for the first scheduled flight in the spring of 1988.
Turning aside a suggestion by Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) that the $3-billion launching site be put in mothballs, the official, Edward C. Aldridge Jr., said that after the facility is completed this year, it will be placed on "caretaker" status until the first flight.
'We'll Be Ready'
"I'm confident we'll be ready to safely launch shuttles from Vandenberg when the time comes," Aldridge said at a Pentagon news conference.
The critical report, prepared by the Democratic staff of the Senate Appropriations military construction subcommittee, has questioned the safety of conducting shuttle launches at Vandenberg. It contended that the launching pad is so close to the control center that the safety of personnel in the center could not be guaranteed.
Although construction is behind schedule, the Vandenberg site is expected to be ready well before any shuttle mission as a result of the halt in flights after the explosion of the Challenger last Jan. 28. The next shuttle flight, to be launched at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is not expected to take place until July, 1987.
The Senate report said that "while the Challenger accident has publicly been viewed as the reason shuttle missions cannot be performed at Vandenberg, the primary reason is the need to test and modify launch pad facilities, which, as currently built, could result in serious damage to the shuttle orbiter under certain, not improbable, circumstances."
However, Aldridge said the Air Force had identified the potential problems raised in the Senate report and had found solutions for all but one. The unresolved matter entails the buildup of hydrogen gas in the shuttle main-engine exhaust ducts, which the report said could result in "a detonation during launch and possible damage to the shuttle itself during liftoff." The Air Force secretary said that "corrective action" will be chosen next month.
The Senate report, stating that "the weather conditions at Vandenberg are often extreme," also said that fog, wind and cool temperatures could impede shuttle operations. But Aldridge, noting that four flights a year are planned, declared: "I don't have any doubt in my mind we can find four good days a year."
The report also said that the fog on summer nights could obscure television pictures used by controllers to monitor launching preparations. But Aldridge responded that despite these conditions, the weather at Vandenberg is considered more favorable than that in Florida, where cold weather contributed to the Challenger disaster and electrical storms can impede launches.
Responding to questions about the safety of the launch control center, less than 1,200 feet from the launching pad, Aldridge said: "There is always danger around any pad." He said the control crew would be situated in a blockhouse with concrete walls two feet thick.
Possible Hazard Cited
The report stated that the proximity of the control center "to the pad could create an extreme hazard if there should be an explosion at liftoff."
The Air Force built the Vandenberg shuttle site to enable it to launch heavy satellites into polar orbits, which offer the greatest opportunity for aiming reconnaissance cameras at the Soviet Union. Spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center head into equatorial orbits.
"Vandenberg's shuttle mission is to put satellites into polar orbits," Aldridge said. "Simply put, there is no other site where we can safely do that in the United States."