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Interview With James Hartsfield, Jim Oberg

Aired December 7, 2002 - 09:22   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: The weather's looking up at the Kennedy Space Center today. That's good news for space shuttle "Endeavour." We can say this with certainty as "Endeavour" is endeavoring to land, that the orbiter will in fact reach terra firma today. The big question is where?
Joining us on this -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- excuse me. Joining on the line now before we get to James Oberg, before we get to James Oberg, is James Hartsfield, a public affairs officer at Mission Control in Houston, the Johnson Space Center.

James, what's the latest weather report?

JAMES HARTSFIELD, NASA SPOKESMAN: Well, we've got the best outlook we have had in our attempts to land in Florida so far today. It looks pretty good. There's still a possibility of some slight cloudiness moving in that could present a ceiling problem for us, a low ceiling. Winds also could be a factor. But they're supposed to improve as the afternoon wears on.

So we have a good chance for Florida today. If not, the other coast, Edwards Air Force Base in California looks quite pristine, so we should be able to land there with no problem.

O'BRIEN: Pristine in the high desert. All right, James Hartsfield, thanks very much.

Let's take a quick look at some animation just to shed a little bit of light on this before we go Jim Oberg and talk to you about where the shuttle might land. There are a few possibilities as we take a look at this 3-D animation.

And, of course, the number one site, which you're all familiar with, if I could have the animation in the Tellestrator, it would be helpful, number one is in Florida, and number two is on the -- imagine a number one there on the Florida peninsula right now. And then imagine a number two in southern California. That would give you the one and two sites.

And they obviously like to go to Florida because it's cheaper, it's about a million bucks, as a matter of fact, to hoist the shuttle on top of a 747, bring it back to Florida. So when in doubt, they will make the best effort to send the shuttle to Florida.

Now, let's get to Jim Oberg in Houston. He's a former NASA engineer, prolific writer, space pundit, a man who rode the space station Mir down on the air with us a little more than a year ago.

Good to see you, Jim Oberg. How are things going?


O'BRIEN: What are the astronauts doing right now?

OBERG: Well, they're psyched. Well, right now they are getting ready to come back. But for the last three days, they have had a chance for sightseeing, some real sightseeing. It's not like you get bored in space.


OBERG: You got a great view.

O'BRIEN: Let's take a look at the view as we talk for a just moment. The shuttle is -- has quite a few windows. You know, and you've got a model. Why don't you explain, first of all, how the shuttles fly, and then we'll show you the view.

OBERG: The shuttle is flying upside down. And that's one of these bizarre things about space, doesn't matter.

O'BRIEN: Wait, wait, wait, Jim, Jim, there's no upside-down in space, of course.

OBERG: Well, all right, minus-X, whatever. There are coordinates, and the shuttle keeps its payload bay to the ground for keeping it warm, flies so back to the ground, nose forward, usually, sometimes tail forward. But all of the windows up front here for the pilots, it's a 180-degree view here, when you're flying in space upside-down, and I won't -- upside down compared to the earth...


OBERG: ... the crew can float inside there by those windows, and they say it's like a balloon gondola, it's like a view you've never seen, it's a 180-degree view, an iMax view of the earth through this front windows. And they -- you never get tired of seeing the ground pass below you at 18,000 miles an hour.

O'BRIEN: Isn't that convenient, that the engineers can come up with a way to put the shuttle in that orientation for thermal reasons, when in fact there are some good sightseeing reasons, huh?

OBERG: Well, you got (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a vehicle as flexible as the shuttle, you get lucky a lot of the time.

O'BRIEN: All right. This is the first time that NASA has ever taken it to the fourth attempt. Three wave-offs. And we're on the fourth attempt. Put that in perspective for us. Is that a big deal? Should we be concerned about -- obviously doesn't need fuel as it rotates around the globe. It -- that's a little bit of orbital mechanics, it's on its side, but it needs consumables, everything from air, to water, to food. OBERG: It does need, it does need the consumables for the fuel cells, and they'll be running out Sunday evening. So by Sunday evening, they'll be back on the ground.

Another thing it uses is maneuvering gas to turn its end back and forth. And whenever time you get ready for a deorbit, there's several things you have to do. One is, you have to turn the payload bay doors to the sun to do what they call thermoconditioning so that when they close, they actually match. That takes a little bit of gas.

Then turn your butt forward, no -- tilt it, tilt it down a bit, get ready to fire these engines. By the way, both those engines are working fine. We -- there was one problem with one of the OMS engines during ascent. They've kept it in reserve, but they will use it for the deorbit burn.

O'BRIEN: And OMS is orbital maneuvering system...

OBERG: Orbital maneuvering...

O'BRIEN: ... it's the big rockets that kind of move it...

OBERG: There we go.

O'BRIEN: ... in -- off of its orbit, the big maneuvers.

OBERG: Right.

O'BRIEN: We got to remind folks of one thing, this is the world's most expensive, heaviest glider. There is no go-arounds here. This is why they are very caution.

OBERG: That's right. This flies like a brick, but it's -- it comes in, and they have always made it. Used to be, they once considered putting jet engines on the tail to give them a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) give them a fly-around ability. Turns out the jet engines were useless, you couldn't really start them until you're close to the runway anyway, and they weighed as much, so much there was no room for payload. So they were taken off it (UNINTELLIGIBLE) even before we flew it.

O'BRIEN: The old Soviet Buran, their shuttle, had those, I think, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

OBERG: Well, they had jet engines on it so they could take off and the -- do landing tests. But when the orbital flight occurred, they had taken the jet engines off too.

O'BRIEN: Same reason, probably.

Jim Oberg, always a pleasure to chat with you, from Houston, where else, giving us some insights as to what's going on in space as the space shuttle "Endeavour" tries on the fourth time today to come down, that's unprecedented in the 21-odd-year history of space shuttles. Nevertheless, NASA says there's plenty of margin for that, nothing to worry about. And as a matter of fact, you can take it to the bank that "Endeavour" will be on the ground by the end of today.

As a matter of fact, we of course are planning live coverage of that first landing attempt. And if the weather's good enough in Florida, you'll see the shuttle land at 2:37 p.m. Eastern time right here on CNN. Tune in then, and if there's a waveoff to some of the other landing opportunities, we'll give you the scoop on that then.


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