Aussie option for Discovery

by Chris Bergin

Queensland’s Amberley RAAF base has been placed on stand-by in case of an emergency landing by Shuttle Discovery.

Top-secret plans for Queensland’s involvement in the event of a mishap have been revealed to The Sunday Mail as NASA waits to launch its first shuttle mission since the Columbia tragedy in 2003.

An Australian Defence Force spokeswoman has confirmed “suitable arrangements” are in place to allow the 100-tonne spacecraft to land at home of Australia’s F1-11 fighter bombers.

But the spokeswoman said security reasons prevented the release of details.

“In the unlikely event of an emergency, it is possible the defence force may be asked to provide assistance,” she said.

“Under Australia’s international obligations, Australia is required to provide any reasonable assistance to ensure the safe exploration of space.”

The secret plans caught Queensland Premier Peter Beattie off-guard.

“I don’t know the details, but that’s obviously a matter that would be handled by the Federal Government,” said a surprised Mr Beattie.

An Australian Defence Force source said: “This is the first time Amberley has been included in an emergency landing scenario.

“They are very secretive, they would prefer to keep it as quiet as they can. Only a few people high up the chain know details. As part of the ANZUS Treaty, when they call out, we act.”

A NASA spokesman said an emergency landing in Australia would be “very last-minute”.

“It would only be in an extreme emergency, some drastic situation in which it was de-orbiting and couldn’t make it back to the US,” he said.

“But it is better to come down on a military runway than a highway or a field.

“Military bases are set up to handle heavier aircraft and have longer runways for huge transport planes.”

The shuttle launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral was yesterday postponed indefinitely as engineers worked to repair a faulty ECO sensor.

Amberley is among dozens of emergency landing sites globally set up by negotiation with the US State Department.

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