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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Shuttle Columbia Breaks Up on Re-Entry, Part III

Aired February 1, 2003 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: What was not added is that this is stuff that is still on the edge of the envelope. That term, that test pilots use, pushing the envelope, the edge of our capabilities as human beings, is manifested in what you see right here in this space shuttle even 20 plus years after it first flew.
But I should point out something that was mentioned a while ago and I didn't get a chance to mention it that the concept of a space shuttle is old is a bit of a fallacy. They are certified, as we said, for a 100 flights. Columbia is on her 28th mission. Every fourth or fifth mission, they go through an overhaul, which is really almost right down to the spars and the aluminum where they truly make the shuttle new.

In the case of Columbia, it had, for example, a brand new glass cockpit installed as part of its last overhaul. So it is -- to call it old is a bit of a myth. These are the most pampered aircraft or spacecraft or whatever you want to call it in the world and they're treated as such.

And when they say 100 missions on that airframe, that's conservative even on its own. So at 28 missions, Columbia was, in fact, sure. The old gray lady having first flown in April. We're looking at -- obviously you can see this is Challenger. It's the only model I have handy, but the old gray lady in the sense chronologically, but at 28 missions, Discovery still has a few others. It's actually flown more missions. So it's not accurate to draw an assumption here about that necessarily.

Now, let's listen to one more member of the crew. And this is the member of the crew who received so much of the attention prior to liftoff because we were so concerned about security, given what's going on in the world, and given the fact that he was a citizen of Israel -- Ilan Ramon. Let's listen in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ILAN RAMON, ISRAELI ASTRONAUT: I really feel that we shouldn't talk too much about it, you know, that NASA security people -- and I know that NASA security people are doing their best for us. And since September 11, unfortunately, it's kind of a world issue here, and since then all of the shuttle flights are taken care of by NASA security for the best of all of us. And I don't feel that we are any special event for them.

(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: Well, the truth of the matter was, it was a special event. It was treated as such because of exactly who Ilan Ramon is. Let's listen to James Hartsfield one more time. The Houston public affairs officer with NASA is giving another update.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JAMES HARTSFIELD, NASA MISSION CONTROL: ... search and rescue teams in Dallas, Forth Worth and in portions of east Texas and other appropriate areas along Columbia's planned route have been alerted and are in contact with local law enforcement authorities in those areas. Any debris that is located in an area that may be related to the space shuttle's contingency should be avoided and may be hazardous as a result of toxic propellants used aboard the shuttle. The location of any possible debris should immediately be reported to local authorities, who are in contact with NASA search teams.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's -- once again, that is bit of a repeat. But for those of you who have been listening, we're sorry for the repetition. We just don't know when he's going to add additional information and so we're going to listen in and keep you posted as events unfold here.

Let's bring everybody up to date. We're approaching the top of the hour. It's 11:00 now and the shuttle is approaching the point when about two hours ago almost exactly the space shuttle Columbia should have been pretty much on final approach to the Kennedy Space Shuttle in Florida at the conclusion of a 16-day science mission. Instead, communication was lost. Telemetry, which is the radio signals, with all the data, all the stuff that fills those computer screens in mission control was lost. And the shuttle did not turn up at its appointed time, 9:16 a.m. Eastern Time, at the Kennedy Space Center.

Space shuttles, when they begin their descent, their landing is -- you can set your watch to it. And so when that happened, immediately, alarm bells went up. I should tell you that NASA has lowered flags near the countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center to half-staff. NASA has lowered flags to half-staff at the countdown clock.

The seven-person crew -- and what you're seeing are pictures captured -- actually, you're seeing a live picture right now of mission control in Houston. But the picture that we've been showing you all morning long is the final moments of the space shuttle Columbia as it broke up mid-flight, 200,000 feet, traveling 12,500 miles an hour. Our affiliate, WFAA, capturing this dramatic videotape, which gives us a sense of what caused -- well, we don't know the cause, but we do know it was a breakup. The cause -- let's listen -- we have -- we have been trying to get our affiliates to capture the shuttle as it came across the continental United States this morning.

KOAT out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a little darker there, of course, when it came across. But I think you can see that dot there. Try to help you out and just tell you it's in that spot right there, in case you're having problems. Not quite the shot that we got obviously out of the Dallas affiliate, but bear in mind the breakup over occurred over Texas. This is New Mexico so these would have been -- this is exactly what you would expect to see as a space shuttle would streak across the night sky on its way to its landing. I'm sorry. I didn't get that. All right.

As we look at that shot and we will tell you that the president was at Camp David when it happened. He's on his way back. He should be there about noontime and that's where Suzanne Malveaux is.

Suzanne, what do you have for us?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, earlier today, I spoke with White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, who said, yes, the president was notified of the situation by his chief-of- staff, Andy Card. They made the decision that it would be better to monitor the situation here from the White House. As you mentioned, the president is on his way back to the White House. He'll be here shortly afternoon.

I also spoke with a senior administration official who said there was no indication that the shuttle had any type of threat that was against it or that was in any type of range of anti-aircraft, anti- missile range, and that there was no indication that this was any type of terrorist situation. Of course, they're still getting lots of information, but initial indications from senior administration officials saying that it does not point in that direction.

I should also tell you as well, that sources tell us that the president, when he comes back, is expected to make a statement, some sort of briefing that he is also expected to call Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as you have mentioned before. One of those on the shuttle, an Israeli citizen -- that the president is, in all likelihood, to call him later this afternoon and that we will hear from Mr. Bush when he returns -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Suzanne Malveaux. We'll -- obviously, the minute the president gets back and makes his statement, we'll be getting back to you so stay close, please.

Let's go to Elizabeth Cohen. Elizabeth Cohen, in the newsroom here, has had an opportunity to speak with one of the crew member's family. And we're just going to leave it at that right now.

Elizabeth, what can you tell us?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Miles, I was speaking on the phone just a few moments ago with the brother of one of the astronauts. I'm not going to name the astronaut, just to protect the privacy of his family. But he says that in the past two hours since the contact was lost, the families have been speaking with each other. The families of the different astronauts have been speaking with each other. They met each other at the launch. There were various activities for the family members. I am sure that they did not expect to get back in contact with one another quite in this way. This gentleman was saying that he expects to be summoned to a memorial service, perhaps in Houston, sponsored -- given by NASA. He expects to get that phone call soon. And again, the families turning to each other for support in this difficult time -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Did they indicate -- there is a fairly rigorous protocol, if you will, that NASA employs where they have people assigned to each family member to assist them through all this. Did you get any sense that that was occurring, and were they getting the support they need?

COHEN: The man who I was speaking to is a brother of one of the astronauts. He said he had had no contact from NASA. Now, perhaps the astronaut's spouse had contact, or parents or somebody else. Perhaps this person hadn't, but others had. He did indicate though that he expected and that the families expected that they would be summoned back in.

O'BRIEN: Elizabeth Cohen, thank you very much. Let us know if you find anything else out as we continue our coverage here.

COHEN: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Let's take a look at a live picture, which tells probably as much as this shot we've been showing you. Kennedy Space Center -- that's in front of a place they call the Turn Basin right beside the countdown clock. In the distance, Launch Pad 39-A where the space shuttle Columbia launched 16 days ago. It was a beautiful afternoon launch. The flag at half-staff in memory of the seven- person crew of Columbia.

And that launch pad -- hard to say when that launch pad might be used again, very premature to even discuss anything along those lines. But there you see it. There you see the flag. And that, in many ways, sums up what we are talking about here.

CNN's Andrea Koppel has been talking to Israeli officials. And we should point out that, in case you're just tuning in, that Ilan Ramon was a member of this crew, the first Israeli astronaut.

Andrea, what have you heard?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, I have spoken with the spokesman from the Israeli embassy near Washington, and he tells me that they have dispatched a small team down to the Kennedy Space Center where Colonel Ramon's wife, his four children, and we believe, his parents, who are quite elderly, were waiting his arrival. The embassy itself obviously had no comment. They're waiting for the government in Jerusalem to take lead there.

But having said that, you know, just looking at this picture, Colonel Ramon was so much more than just a professional, and as you pointed out, the first Israeli to go into space. But he really was somewhat of a -- you know, a national hero, the quintessential hero, if you will, for Israel. This is a man that flew in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. He fought in the 1982 war with Lebanon. He was also, believe it or not, one of the pilots that bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor back in 1981. He is a payload specialist who's been training for this mission since 1997. And, in fact, his job on board the space shuttle was supposed to be basically using cameras on board to look at how desert dust and other contaminants that you would find in the atmosphere, earth's atmosphere, how that's affected by rainfall and temperature.

So this was a mission that the entire Israeli public was watching and really had their heart in their hands. And at this moment you can imagine how many hearts across Israel and certainly in this country as well, are breaking right now -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Andrea Koppel, thank you very much. Certainly, that is the case everywhere right now as we pause to think about those family members.

Let's take a look at a picture. We've been getting e-mail images in from our viewers. And this is the first picture we've seen from Nacogdoches County, Texas. And I've been calling it central Texas. I'm told by some people, it's more accurate to call it east Texas. But it's safe to say that there is a big wide swath area that has been seen -- what you're about to see as I scroll down here, which is a piece of debris on the ground there. If I put it through the telestrator, I can highlight it for you. Hang on. I over scrolled there. Hopefully get to it up to the point where we've got in a place where you can see it.

There you see it right there on the pavement. It looks like it's right here an apartment building. What I want to reiterate is what NASA has been saying all morning long, which is, don't touch it. Don't go near it. Call the authorities. Let them know it's there. Try to keep people from touching it, if you can. It's apt to contain all kinds of hazardous things -- hydrazine is on the top of my list, right off the bat, which is a very nasty substance, which is used to fire the rockets on orbit and also power the auxiliary power units, Nitrogen Tetroxide, which can burn you. That's an oxidizer, which mixes. It creates that -- those thruster firings on orbit. Don't go near it. It can hurt you. It's also, I should point out, against the law.

We've been listening in to members of the crew. I'm hopeful that we have some more of those interviews ready to go. We talked to the crew. OK. Apparently, we do not have them quite ready. We're going to try -- all right, we have -- a reporter from where? All right. We've got somebody at the Kennedy Space Center to check in with us, Grayson Kamm.

Grayson, I don't know -- you're with Central Florida 13.

GRAYSON KAMM, CENTRAL FLORIDA NEWS 13 CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Grayson, tell us what's been going on there.

KAMM: With Central Florida News 13, I cover the Kennedy Space Center and this area. It's a very surreal feeling out here. You know we've done this several times before. You stand up. You get ready for the landing. We all look down south and we look and we look and nothing came. And we're used to hearing a pair of sonic booms that come in a few minutes before the landing as the shuttle drops back through the sound barrier. We didn't hear that and it kind of raised everyone's eyebrows and then everyone started looking. And the countdown clock that counts down to the landing time started counting back up, which is what it does after it passes the landing time. And it started hitting six and even seven minutes and none of us knew quite how to handle it.

The family and the visitors and the guests that were all there -- I am not sure if astronauts' families were out there. They typically are. But all of the guests, all the VIPs were ushered into NASA buses and escorted away from the shuttle landing strip. We were escorted away shortly after that. We've headed back to the press site here, which is by the vehicle assembly building in the center of the Kennedy Space Center. And really, they're not telling us much more than what you guys, I'm sure, have been finding out there in Atlanta and all over.

They are scheduling some sort of press conference here for apparently 11:30. We're going to try and find out more from them at that time. But really, this whole community is just devastated. This whole area is tied to the Kennedy Space Center. We call this area the Space Coast. We grew up here. There's not a person here who doesn't know somebody who works at the Kennedy Space Center. I'm sure a lot of folks all over can identify with, you know, an Air Force base or something else nearby where it's like that. And that's what it's like here with the Kennedy Space Center. And it's just -- the silence is eerie.

You know, I look at the other reporters I work with every day. We don't know what to say to each other. It's a very bizarre feeling. There's been talk about what caused this failure and I guess the latest we've gotten is from Johnson Space Center. They said something about losing a piece of insulation off of the external tank and into the heat shield. And Miles, as you know, that can -- the heat shield is a very unpredictable part of the shuttle. But we really don't know if that's what's caused it. We're waiting until 11:30 to try and find out that information.

But the community here is really, I mean, just devastated. Not only were there experiments on board Columbia, there was also part of the ground-based experiments that were being done out of Florida Tech, the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, which is just 30 miles down the road. They were doing some of the some ground-based things with the European Space Agency, doing the same experiments they were doing up in space down here on earth at almost the same time. So there are connections to this mission all through this area, this Central Florida area.

People commute to the Kennedy Space Center, which is over on the coast. They commute from as far away as Orlando or even further away. And so there are people in neighborhoods all across Central Florida, you know the fellow down the street or their friend's mom works out here at Kennedy Space Center and they just don't know how to handle it. It's very eerily quiet out here. Press officers have been driving back and forth in cars trying to gather information for us now. But Miles, really we're just in a state of absolute disbelief. We know what's supposed to happen and we knew things were wrong, and just our worst fears have been confirmed.

O'BRIEN: Grayson, you know, we -- I think many of us got the sense, even those of us who are close to the space program, that the landing was just not as big a concern. And you know what we have to recall here is the tremendous heat, which a shuttle encounters.

And I wonder if in the control room they can get that shot of the launch cued up because we can talk about what Grayson made just a tangentle reference to, which was, on assent, during the launch, there was a piece of debris which was noted by engineers, which fell off the external tank.

Now, if we could roll that tape. It's very difficult to make out here. And I'm not sure that I've identified the precise moment. But if you let it roll and this was something that was well known to engineers because the first thing they do after a launch is pore over some camera views that you can hardly imagine -- close-ups, high-speed photography which gives them a sense of all kinds of things. And they can find out a lot of things about what happened on assent and perhaps plan accordingly for reentry.

Now, the concern is that -- as you look at the shuttle's external tank there, it is covered with foam. The reason it's covered with foam is it contains liquid hydrogen. It's like minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit or something along those -- the coldest substance on the planet. Ice foam has been noted to fall off. And at those speeds, at those speeds, the ice or foam, which could fall off the external tank, which is this kind of brownish color, at those speeds, it could damage some of these tiles. The shuttle is covered in these ceramic tiles, which are very fragile. About 20,000 of them on the Columbia alone, along with blankets and carbon carbon and all kinds of things to protect which is an aluminum frame, as it comes in for reentry. Aluminum would be soup if it wasn't protected by that thermal system. But it's a very fragile system and it remains the most labor intensive aspect of keeping the shuttles aloft and keeping them flying.

Now Grayson, I -- the conversations that I have had with engineers there was, we've looked at this debris falling off. We focused on where it landed and we don't think it's a big deal. Did you hear the same things?

KAMM: That's the same thing I have heard. You know these flight engineers do this for a living. They do it every day. They find problems and they have to make that analysis on whether it's safe and what the conditions are, whether they need to make repairs, what can happen. But...

O'BRIEN: All right. We just lost our signal, unfortunately, from Grayson. And with that, we're going to turn back to Jerry Linenger.

Jerry, are you at home -- Jerry? JERRY LINENGER, FORMER SHUTTLE MIR ASTRONAUT: Yes, I am.

O'BRIEN: OK. Jerry in northern Michigan, at home, who --- a veteran of the shuttle, veteran of Mir. Jerry, have you -- it's been a little while since we've talked. I'm curious if anything else has come to mind for you on what might have happened here, what sorts -- and I don't want to get way ahead of this, but I mean let's give the areas of interest that would be some of the prime suspects in this.

LINENGER: I think you've been covering them well, Miles. I think, you know, it's very dynamic, obviously, a lot of friction, a lot of pressure buildup when you're streaking through the atmosphere. Friction's what slows you down. You're inside a big fireball. Plasma collapsing around you, so its airframe is the first thing I would worry about, you metal fatigue, things of that nature.

I think what you mentioned, you know, if there's a defect in the insulation. A tile at a critical point, you know, if it hits a, for example, control mechanism and you lose control of the vehicle, the top of the vehicle, for example, cannot withstand the type of heat that you take during reentry. So you know all the things you're pointing toward are things that you have to be concerned about.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

LINENGER: I'll tell you, it's a heck of a crew on board, as you go through the people and...

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about them a bit.

LINENGER: Oh, just, you know, skilled, dedicated, courageous people.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

LINENGER: And I guess the other thing, the people on the ground, you know, besides not touching it for their own safety, I'm sure everybody wants to -- in Texas and around the world, wants to make sure we figure out what caused this so it never happens again.

O'BRIEN: Yes. What -- Jerry, you've been inside the space program and know exactly what happens and how NASA prepares for these to aid and assist the families. What is happening right now to help these families out?

LINENGER: There's usually a family escort and that's many times an astronaut that goes along with the family, especially during a launch time. And at landing, it sort of depends on the family's request and how comfortable they feel. If it's maybe the guy's third or fourth flight, the family feels comfortable in knowing what to do. But on first flights, a lot of times they'll provide an escort to be with the family. If they're going to be there at landing, I'm sure there's people to kind of tell them what happens during landing and to ease their concerns. And now, of course, they're there to try to comfort them. O'BRIEN: And it's probably a challenge which -- well, it's got to be an incredibly difficult time for them and these families to try to sort through all of this. Jerry, this is something that astronauts certainly know about, but I wouldn't say they fear it.

LINENGER: I don't think they fear it. You know we have confidence. You heard Rick Husband, the commander, talking before he left. He's got confidence in the vehicle and confidence in all the people that make that vehicle go to space. And you know, it's, obviously, a tragedy of great, you know, depth here. And you know there's lots of people feeling very badly. I'm sure everybody in the world feels badly.

O'BRIEN: What does this do to the program, Jerry?

LINENGER: You know the interesting thing that you flashed up there -- there's a cosmonaut and two astronauts on board the space station. So you've got a space station up there orbiting that depends upon the shuttle. You have other means. You can use a Soyuz capsule, the Russian capsule, to get there. But you know I think exploration and discovery and going out there and pushing the envelope, that's what the astronauts do every day of their lives up there in space.

O'BRIEN: Jerry, you mentioned an important point. We have a crew up there, Don Pettit, Ken Bowersox, a Russian cosmonaut, whose name is escaping me this morning. I apologize for that. Budarin, I believe. And it is -- they -- at this point, are sort of not stranded. They have a Soyuz capsule there, which they can take to leave any time. And I guess we should point that out to our viewers.

Are you there, Jerry? OK.

All right. Let's move on. And we'll think about that point a little bit later. United Space Alliance is the prime contractor for the space shuttle. It's a synthesis of a couple big aerospace companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. USA is the prime contractor, which does the work in getting a space shuttle to orbit and bringing it back and turning it around. A lot of people don't realize that most of the employees at NASA work for contractors and the NASA civilian force is actually a small part of. The real work is done, in many respects, by the United Space Alliance.

With us on the line now is Jeff Carr, spokesperson for USA. Jeff, are you in Florida?

JEFF CARR, UNITED SPACE ALLIANCE: No, Miles, I'm in Houston, near mission control.

O'BRIEN: What can you tell us from your perspective? What have you seen? What have you heard? And do you have any sense of where things are headed right now?

CARR: Well, Miles, as frustrating as it may be to your viewers, we really don't know what happened. You've done a great job so far, I think of laying out the sequence of events. I was listening to your interview with Jerry Linenger and I thought he brought some very level perspective to it.

But right now, we're working closely with NASA to go back and review all of the data, look for anything that might be a telltale sign of what occurred. Unfortunately, our first indication that anything was wrong with what looked like a picture-perfect reentry this morning came with that loss of communications. And until we do determine what happened, our primary concern is with, of course, the safety and well being and crew and until we know what happened, that's going to continue to be our primary concern.

O'BRIEN: Jeff, once again -- bear with me here because I don't want to get too far down the road of speculation, but I do want to address this because it's out there. This is the piece of debris, which fell off on assent, while it was rising to orbit. What can you tell us about what we know about that? As I've been telling our viewers, the sense I got from talking to people at NASA is that they discounted whether it -- well, they basically said it wasn't a big deal.

CARR: Well, I would take exception with them discounting it, Miles. I think what happened is there's a lot of very smart people that took -- using good technology that took a good look at the imagery that was available and analyzed that image and basically determined that it was not conclusive.

O'BRIEN: Jeff, let me interrupt you while you say that. Let's get that image up if we could, that assent image, the launch image where we see, I believe if you look closely, you can some debris falling off. Go ahead, Jeff. What was the determination as they looked at it very closely there?

CARR: Well, it -- basically, Miles, it was a non-determination. There wasn't any indication, any immediate indication, that there was any damage of note. And I think it's really at this point much, much too early to begin speculating that there's any linkage between that event and what has occurred this morning. We don't know what the cause is and it just wouldn't be productive to speculate at this point.

O'BRIEN: No, and I don't want to do that. And I don't want you to have a sense that that's where I'm headed with this. It's just that this is something that people are aware of and I wanted to at least get a sense from you as to where it stood and what the feeling was. I mean the shuttle, in the course of its 113-mission history, has lost tiles before.

CARR: That's true. But at this point we don't even know that there were tiles lost or to what extent they were lost, Miles. And it's -- this is one of many, many stones that's going to be overturned. We're going to be looking at every scrap of information and evidence that could help us understand what happened today. That activity's going to be ongoing for days, weeks, maybe months. I don't know.

But right now our primary concern is to determine, as best we can, what happened and to determine the safety and well being of the crew. And Miles, before we go too much farther, I really want to say those of us at United Space Alliance -- our hearts go out to the families of the crewmembers. Their families are our families. We're a very close-knit community and we want them to know that they're in our thoughts and prayers.

O'BRIEN: Yes and that's worth thinking for a moment about. Tell me this, Jeff, can you walk me through reentry, and give me just a sense of what the vehicle encounters from the moment it does that de- orbit built burn, all the way down to landing at the Kennedy Space Center?

CARR: Well, or course, Miles, the two most intense periods of time during a shuttle mission are the launch and assent and the entry and landing. The launch and assent lasts eight and a half minutes, the process of reentry, an hour. From the time the orbital maneuvering system engines burn to de-orbit the vehicle, there's a great deal of energy stored in the vehicle as a result of all the energy it's gained during assent and that it possesses during the orbit phase. That energy's got to be depleted.

And the vehicle basically breaks through the atmosphere by flying wide S-turns and sort of skipping against the atmosphere. It's a brute force operation with a little finesse to manage the loads on the vehicle and the temperatures on the vehicles. And we've never had, in the history of the program, an issue such as this during entry and landing, but we all know that this is one of the -- one of the most dynamic phases of any mission.

O'BRIEN: And the temperatures that a shuttle endures through all this, in excess of 2,000 degrees, correct --Fahrenheit?

CARR: I believe that's right.

O'BRIEN: And so, clearly, the heat shield is something that is very important and has to be considered. Is there anything else you can tell us about -- the term is telemetry. That's basically all those radio signals that feed all those computer screens in Houston. Is there anything in that telemetry that anybody has seen that showed any sorts of hiccups on any systems that would give anybody any preliminary indications as to what might have been going wrong?

CARR: Miles, I was not in the control center this morning, so I can't tell you absolutely that nothing was noticed but at present, there's nothing that's leading us to any conclusions. There are two ways to determine the status of the vehicle during entry and landing particularly over the continental United States. One of those is the telemetry that's sent from the vehicle to the ground, and the other is ground-based CBAN (ph) radar-tracking information. And unfortunately, we found ourselves in Houston without any indications either way.

O'BRIEN: Jeff Carr, United Space Alliance spokesperson, joining us from Houston. We appreciate it. We'd like to get back to you whenever you feel it's important.

CARR: Miles, there is one important note I might add.

O'BRIEN: Yes, sure. Go ahead.

CARR: And I very much appreciate your efforts to let folks in east Texas know that any debris that they might encounter out there could be hazardous. There are toxic chemicals aboard the vehicle at that phase of reentry. And as curious as they may be, it's important to their safety to report any debris that they might encounter to the local authorities and stay away from it.

O'BRIEN: Words to the wise. Please, if you're in earshot and you're in that part of the world, we implore you to listen to that because that would just compound the tragedy that we're seeing unfold today. Jeff Carr, we'll check in with you in just a bit.

A quick recap for you at the bottom of the hour. It's 11:30 Eastern now. Two hours and 15 minutes ago, we should have seen the shuttle Columbia touchdown gracefully for a landing at the 15,000-foot runway at the Kennedy Space Center. Instead, on it's 48th flight, the 113th mission in shuttle history of the space shuttle Columbia, broke up mid-flight over central and east Texas at announced to the 200,000 miles plus, in excess of six times the speed of sound.

The pictures that we've been showing you are -- dramatically tell the tale from our affiliate, WFAA, as it broke into numerous large pieces. Those are those bright points followed by distinct trails behind them, sort of like multiple comets or meteorites, traveling faster than a speeding bullet at that point.

A crew of seven was finishing up a 16-day science mission, which went off pretty much without a hitch. And right now, search and rescue teams are fanning out all across Texas, searching for debris. And, as a matter of fact, we have a piece of debris, which one of our viewers sent to us from one of the counties. There, you'll see it right in the middle. If you see something like this, folks, please don't touch it. Please don't touch it. Just leave it there and try to keep others from touching it. Call the authorities. It's going to be a big debris field over a huge, huge area, multiple pieces, huge area. And you know, in the interest of your own personal safety, you are implored to leave it be.

We have with us Suzanne Malveaux who's at the White House. The president is en route back to the White House. We're expecting, by the way, a news conference from NASA, Kennedy Space Center and we hope to get that soon.

But in the meantime, Suzanne, can you tell us -- you've had a chance to talk to some people inside the White House who've had access to the Situation Room and what's going on. What can you tell us?

MALVEAUX: Well, I can tell you, a senior administration official assures us, and he says -- I'm quoting here -- "There is no reason to believe, no indication to believe that this is terrorism," that they are fully investigating the matter. But a senior administration official reassuring the American people, saying there is no indication that this is terrorism.

We did speak with Scott McClellan. He is a White House spokesman. He gave us a tick-tock -- the details of how this unfolded before the president, that he was notified by chief-of-staff, Andy Card, immediately after NASA lost contact with the shuttle. Also, Dr. Condi Rice was notified, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Colin Powell as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Meyers.

We are told that the president did speak with NASA's director, O'Keefe, at 10:30 this morning, that they will continue to remain in contact. But they have had an initial conversation about what is taking place.

The decision was made that it would best that the president will return here to the White House to continue to monitor situations. They say that they are still gearing information at this time. We have also learned as well that Governor Ridge, who is now secretary of homeland security, that he has made a number of calls, that he has reached out, calling the governor of Texas, Governor Perry, also calling officials from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana. That all regarding possible falling debris that he wanted to make sure to touch base with all of them to let them know of the dangerous situation. As you know, we've been hearing from NASA officials all morning on that.

We have also been told that the White House has been in contact with Israeli officials not the president, not on that level, but certainly U.S. officials in contact with Israeli officials regarding that -- the one person who was on the shuttle, an Israeli citizen.

All of this unfolding. The president, of course, taking this very seriously, very concerned about it. We are expecting him to arrive back at the White House shortly where, yes, he will be conferring with his chief-of-staff, Andy Card, Dr. Rice, among others, to monitor this situation. And they're very concerned and they say that yes, this is unfolding, but everybody is fully aware of all of the information as it comes in. And again, a senior administration official emphasizing this morning, and I'm quoting here -- "There is no reason to believe there is any indication that this is terrorism" -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Suzanne Malveaux, that's worth underscoring. We've got to remember the altitude and speed at which the shuttle was traveling at the time of the breakup, 200,000 feet, six times the speed of sound. It's pretty hard to conjure up a terrorist or any sort of way of reaching it if terrorism is your thought. But we do have to address that issue in this day and age, so we do.

Let's take a quick look at the map. And this is -- I've been calling it central Texas. It's really east central Texas. As you take a look at the map, this is the area, Palestine, Nacogdoches, St. Augustine; these are the areas where we've been hearing about debris. Now, as the shuttle came in, across this way, traveling fast, traveling high, that debris field has got to be just staggeringly huge. So -- and it's also likely that there's an awful lot of small pieces. So we're going to underscore that point one more time. If you see something, don't touch it. Ed Lavandera is right near a piece of debris. He's in Corsicana, Texas, which isn't too far from Dallas.

Ed, what are you seeing?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, we are driving along Interstate 45 headed southbound out of Dallas toward the Palestine and Nacogdoches area. And we have come across the first location where we have seen what appears to be some sort of piece of debris that has been smoldering for some time now in a wide, open field with brown dirt all over the place. And we see a group of people.

We're about -- the people in this debris is about 300, 400 yards away from the interstate so it's hard to make out what exactly is going on over there. But clearly, people walking through this field and this isn't a field that you would walk through by any means. Protecting that area -- a lot of interest. Onlookers from the interstate stopping to see what was going on.

And Miles, you mentioned just how huge this area is. We've been listening to radio reports throughout the morning as we've been driving and there are reports coming in from all over east Texas, from Marshall, which is very close to -- along Interstate 20, near the Louisiana border, and all the way down south to Nacogdoches. We're talking several hundred miles in a huge swath of land through east Texas that these reports have been coming in through.

So this is the first, little piece of debris that we've been able to see. And as we continue to drive toward Palestine, we had indications that there is -- there are more reports and more debris that has been found from Palestine into the Nacogdoches area as well -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Ed, just -- can you describe the piece for me? Are you close enough to have a sense of that?

LAVANDERA: No, it's so hard to see. It's a -- you can tell that it was a dark piece of debris and unfortunately that's why this town is describing the dirt. It's very dark dirt, soil, in this area. So all you could see was something standing -- kind of sitting on top of the soil there, some piece of debris. And it's hard to describe what it might have been. But it was distinguished because you can see the smoke coming from the debris as well. And you could also see a group of about six or seven people in the distance, almost guarding the area.

O'BRIEN: Ed Lavandera, who is on the road, in the midst of that debris field. We conducted some extensive interviews with the seven- person crew of Columbia before they left. And I'd like to -- I'm hopeful that we can share some of that throughout the course of this. And I believe we have some more of that ready. I don't known who we have ready in the queue and ready to go. Maybe you can give me a sense of that in the control room. All right, Willie McCool. Willie McCool was the pilot, first-time flyer, United States Navy and a commander in the Navy, used to carrier landings and flying the EA-6B. Here's what he had to say before he left.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM MCCOOL, PILOT: For me, it doesn't really affect me. I'm so focused on the mission and the training and -- gosh, I got a Navy background. I've been flying off of carriers and doing night landings and dealt with pitching decks and bad weather. So you just kind of get immune to -- in the sense to the environment around you and you deal with it. And that's pretty much my attitude with regard to the 9/11 events.

And I guess I have more concern maybe for my family. I just want to do everything I can to put them at ease. And I know NASA has done a wonderful job in coping with the necessity for new security measures. And I think they've done a good job in doing that and have given comfort to me and my crewmates and, in particular, our families along those lines.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Tremendous concerns about security before this mission launch because of one occupant in particular. I mean every shuttle mission since 9/11 has had added security just like everything else we've encountered in our lives since 9/11. But in this mission in particular, one occupant put the security measures really over the top, unprecedented in the history of NASA shuttle missions, 113 of them since it began in April of '81.

The reason, one occupant, citizen of Israel, the first Israeli to fly in space, Colonel Ilan Ramon. And really, I don't think people here in the United States are as aware that he was a true hero of the state of Israel. Let's go to Heidi Collins who has more on that.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Miles. I'm going to try to help you out a little bit here. We want to tell you about Ilan Ramon. As Miles was just saying, he was the first Israeli astronaut. Forty- eight years old and just as tragically as for the rest of the astronauts who had family, he was a family man, a father, a husband and four children. And they have actually -- the Israeli embassy, has now sent a small team to Florida, to be with Ramon's wife and her children, and also his parents are there as well. As you can imagine, the feelings that they might have, along with the other families standing by at Kennedy Space Center awaiting the arrival and landing of the shuttle Columbia.

We are going to go now to Kelly Wallace, who is standing by in Israel, to tell us a little more about the background of Ilan Ramon -- Kelli.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, as you can imagine, tremendous sadness going through the entire country of Israel as these events are unfolding. We do have some reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His office issuing a statement a short time ago. The statement saying, quote -- "The government of Israel and the people of Israel pray together with the whole world for the safety of the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia." The statement going on to say, "The state of Israel and its citizens stand at this difficult hour with the families of the astronauts, Colonel Ramon's family, the American people and the U.S. government."

As you said, Heidi, a small team from the U.S. embassy in Washington going to Florida because that is where Colonel Ramon's wife and his four children are. They were there, of course, awaiting the return of the space shuttle Columbia. We know that Colonel Ramon's father, though, here in Israel. In fact, he was watching or was at an Israeli television station. We understand he was there to watch the events unfold, to watch the return of the space shuttle. And then, of course, he watched the events on television. We believe Colonel Ramon's father has since left that station to return to his family.

Now Colonel Ramon really the pride of Israel, an air force colonel with more than 3,000 flight hours. He has a distinguished career. He served in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He also was part of the mission back in 1981, a mission to bomb a nuclear reactor in Iraq.

We have colleagues going around Israel talking to people here. As you can imagine, tremendous shock on the people -- from the people of Israel on this night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're a very depressed country at the moment with the impending war on Iraq, with the intifadah the political problems that we have. We think this is going to hit Israelis quite hard because it's very personal. It was -- the wife has been interviewed. We know that the kids -- you know the kids are, you know, in their classes. And in schools, it's very personal. It's a very personal loss for everybody. We're very -- I'm very upset.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: A very personal loss, Heidi, indeed because, you know, when Colonel Ramon took off on the space shuttle Columbia, it was front page news in every Israeli newspaper, live coverage on every Israeli television station. This, after all, the first Israeli astronaut in space. But also put this in context, this is a country experiencing a great deal of violence. More than two years of the second intifadah against Israel, more than 80 suicide bombings, tremendous violence. The economy really in a devastating situation right now, so lots of bad news. A lot of people looked at Colonel Ramon and his mission as some good news, really, in a sea of very difficult times. Back to you, Heidi.

COLLINS: That's right, Kelly. And obviously, Colonel Ramon, lots and lots of experience to finally get to this day, which is seen amongst the flying world as quite an honor, to become an astronaut. It takes very hard work and a lot of hours.

He was an F-16 pilot, more than 1,000 hours in that plane that are familiar with, of course, in this country. He also took place in the 1981 bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq. So once again, payload specialist on this mission, 48 years old, father of four and, obviously a devoted husband.

I want to go now to another reporter that we have standing by at the Kennedy Space Center. Grayson Kamm of Central Florida News standing by to tell us more about the situation there --Grayson.

KAMM: Hi, we were expecting a press conference with the media representatives here at the Kennedy Space Center. We've actually been moved from the shuttle landing facility to the Kennedy -- to the central part of the Kennedy Space Center, at the media site. We're expecting a press conference at 11:30. That has come and gone.

We are told now that NASA administration, Sean O'Keefe, is on his way here. As soon as the head of NASA gets here, they say that's when they will hold a press conference and give us any more information than they have been giving us.

Even though we are right here with all of the press people who are coordinating this, we know little more than you guys have heard there in Atlanta and everywhere else. It has just been a day of trying to piece together information ever since we waited for the shuttle to land and it never came. So right now, the -- you know, you go into the media center and you've got people on two different cell phones and a regular phone trying to coordinate this, trying to bring it all together, to give us some idea of the latest information of what they have. But right now, it's been very sketchy.

COLLINS: All right. Grayson Kamm, thank you very much for the update from Kennedy Space Center.

So we want to make sure that we remind you about something that Miles O'Brien has been talking about all morning long, very, very important for the people in the debris field, which, as we mentioned, is absolutely huge across central and east Texas. There are two main chemicals; two main propellants that may cause a serious danger if you get anywhere near them. Let me just tell you what they are -- nitrogen tetroxide and monomethel (ph) hydrazine. These are very, very dangerous materials to the touch even. So if you are curious, if you are seeing a piece of debris on your land or on your property, do your very, very best to stay absolutely as far away of it as possible. Report to it authorities and make sure that you do err on the side of caution from this.

We're going to send it back over to Miles O'Brien now, who is standing by, to tell us what he knows -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right. Thanks very much, Heidi, appreciate that. Probably can't underscore that point enough for you. It would just compound the terrible tragedy if somebody were to be burned or disfigured in some way by hydrazine, which is in particular a very, very volatile ultimately cancer-causing substance. And both that and the nitrogen tetroxide can burn you just to touch it. So don't do it. Just stay away from it and help the authorities in all of this by letting them know where it is.

We have with us on the phone line, Michael Bohn. And Michael was in charge of the -- he's actually with us live. He was in charge of the Situation Room back 17 years ago this past week when -- on the day of what should have been the State of the Union, the Challenger exploded a little more than a minute after liftoff. As anybody who was around then remembers that heroing day, the decision to actually cancel the State of the Union address that night by Ronald Reagan. Michael Bohn was there.

Tell us -- if you could give us a sense, sort of paint the scene for us in the Situation Room at times like this.

MICHAEL BOHN, FORMER DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE SITUATION ROOM: Well, it comes as a shock to the duty officers just as it is a shock to people at home. When I was there, sitting at my desk watching the Challenger lift off and saw it explode, it was an extraordinary shock. And the first thing I did was ran upstairs and tell people about it and that's probably what they did today as they heard about it.

In 1986, CNN wasn't quite so nimble as it was now. And we actually had to make phone calls to find out what was going on. And we called the Johnson Spacecraft Center and the Kennedy Spacecraft Center. And the emphasis at that time...

O'BRIEN: And I'm -- you know, I've got to interrupt you just briefly, Michael, because we're not making clear what we're seeing right at the screen. That is file tape from 17 years ago.

BOHN: Yes.

O'BRIEN: That's Challenger. That has nothing to do with today's events. OK, go ahead.

BOHN: Today's events, quite similar to then, the first thing the Situation Room does, and its primary duty is the president's alert center, is find out what happened and tell people about it. With us, it was quite easy because they were upstairs. With them, they had to make telephone calls. The president is at Camp David.

But since it's a domestic issue, they call both the White House staff as well as their boss, the national security adviser, and let them know that something has happened. After that the emphasis is what happened and are there any survivors. In both cases, it's hard to believe that there were any survivors, but that's what first comes to people's minds.

O'BRIEN: And give us a sense -- I guess what might be different this time around, 17 years after Challenger -- what might be different is the specter of terrorism. Certainly, terrorism existed back then but it wasn't on the forefront of our minds as it is today.

BOHN: Absolutely. In fact, they probably have that right on top of their checklist. Any time anything happens, is there a connection to terrorism? And if so, how can I find out about it because people will start asking those questions, absolutely. And that's what makes everything different today than it was then.

O'BRIEN: Take us through those hours though. I'm sure it's all a bit of a blur to you, and... BOHN: Well...

O'BRIEN: ... the response and confusion, which inevitably follows something like this.

BOHN: Let me tell you a little bit about what happened in 1986 and then shift it over to today because there is quite a few parallels. At that time, shuttle liftoffs were routine. The networks didn't cover them. You didn't see Walter Cronkite any more at the beach, but CNN was there. And we were in the Sit Room watching the liftoff and saw the explosion. And the Situation Room is really geared toward international events but clearly certain domestic things require their attention.

So I ran upstairs from my office in the Sit Room and broke the basic protocol of White House behavior. I opened doors without being asked to enter or opened doors without an appointment. And I started with John Poindexter, the national security adviser. And I just stuck my head in and said, "The Challenger has exploded. We don't know what happened." And I went then, next, to...

O'BRIEN: Michael Bohn -- Michael Bohn, stand by one second. We got a dispatch from James Hartsfield in Houston.

BOHN: Sure.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

HARTSFIELD: ... Central time, 1:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That statement will be broadcast on NASA television live, again, beginning at noon Central Time, 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time, a media statement by NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe.

A space shuttle contingency has been declared in mission control. Flight controllers continue to secure information and data and all notes pertinent to Columbia's dissent from orbit this morning. Communications with Columbia were lost at approximately 8:00 a.m. Central Time as Columbia flew above north central Texas at an altitude of approximately 200,000 feet and a speed of 12,500 miles per hour.

Mission control had no further communications or tracking with Columbia following that time. Search and rescue teams in the Dallas/ Fort Worth area and in portions of east Texas and along Columbia's planned route toward the Kennedy Space Center have been alerted to the space shuttle contingency and are actively at work.

The location of any possible debris should be immediately reported to local authorities, who will be in contact with NASA and Air Force search and rescue personnel. Any debris that is located may be hazardous and should be avoided due to the toxic propellants used on board the space shuttle.

Again, a press statement and availability by NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, is scheduled... O'BRIEN: All right. We've been listening to John -- excuse me -- James Hartsfield, public affairs officer in Houston. He's sitting in one of those consoles there. I don't know if you noticed during that shot, there were a lot of boxes. It looked like moving boxes. One of the things that is part of the protocol is to gather your notes, gather all your documents, all your data. All of that is sealed up, put in boxes and ultimately will be the focus of a commission that will look into exactly what's going on here.

But you see the various positions. They're picking up notebooks and documents, preserving data is the key here, capturing what's on the screens, printing out notes in order to capture exactly what happened in those final minutes of the space shuttle Columbia. One p.m. Eastern, Sean O'Keefe, the administrator of NASA -- little more than a year into his job -- will address the nation from the Kennedy Space Center. We, of course, will bring that to you live.

OK, the -- I guess given what we've been reporting to you and showing you what I'm about to tell you is perhaps obvious, but what senior officials are telling us is confirming what we've seen, which is that the shuttle is -- quote -- "gone." Let's leave that at that.

Michael Bohn, we were talking about the confusion and the -- what happens in the hours subsequent to these kinds of things and how the government pulls itself together. Take us inside that once again.

BOHN: As I was mentioning to you, I simply ran upstairs when the Challenger exploded and threw open the doors and told people. I went from Poindexter to Vice President Bush to Don Regan, the chief-of- staff. And then, we all ended up in the Oval Office, watching CNN run those pictures of the Challenger explosion over and over again, just as you've done today with this shuttle.

Then it was a question of finding out what happened. And it's a matter of getting on the telephone and finding out from NASA what they thought had happened. Did they know anything about survivors? What caused it, all that sort of thing? And there was just an incessant stream of questions from upstairs about all of this. And what we tried to do is gather that information as fast as we could.

The same thing happened today. The duty officers probably saw it first on the news, heard about it from NASA and immediately notified people, right up the chain and immediately starred making telephone calls to find out what happened.

In the case with any crisis, a bolt from the blue, the government's main -- the first action you have to take is get everybody up to speed on what happened so everyone has the same level of information. What happened? Where did it occur? That sort of thing. And then go from there. With respect to NASA, it's just a question of getting on the phone. With other kinds of crisis, you have to call upon many, many sources of information to get that information.

O'BRIEN: Michael, if you could tell us then, you know, just recounting, when it became -- I think we probably, as you put it, CNN's a bit more nimble now. We -- I think we have a clear indication earlier on. It was many, many hours, as I recall, after the Challenger explosion before we really had a chance sense of what happened.

BOHN: It was. Time is a little bit more compressed now. What I did was I invited the administrator of NASA to come over to my office and use it as his command center because the rest of the government didn't have those facilities as they do now. And he came over and we helped him draft some statements and make telephone calls. And we got Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers on a speaker box, on the telephone, and they relayed real-time information to us as they acquired it and then we would pass it upstairs.

O'BRIEN: Michael Bohn, formerly in the Situation Room and who happened to be there on January 28, 1986, the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded some 70 seconds after leaving the launch pad there, killing all seven crewmembers in that case, 17 years ago this past week.

Let's get Cliff Johnson on line. Cliff Johnson is an assistant to the governor of Texas, Rick Perry.

Cliff, what can you tell us about the effort to preserve the debris field and perhaps more importantly, keep people away from any debris?

CLIFF JOHNSON, ASSISTANT TO GOVERNOR PERRY: Well, we're watching the debris field. We had been -- we just went from the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) County, Corsicana through Anderson County, Palestine, over to Cherokee County, through Nacogdoches County over to St. Augustine County. We have 20, 25 pieces of debris field. The biggest that has been reported is anywhere from three to four foot square.

We've had a few calls in on some small fires, nothing that couldn't be controlled. We had some folks reporting the smell of some kind of propellant. So we're telling everybody to be very, very careful. We're securing all those sites. And we have the local fire department, local DPS, state troopers, the sheriff's office, the police department -- everybody is securing these sites. And we're building a list of those sites in the Palestine, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) County, and Anderson County sheriff's office as we speak.

O'BRIEN: How big a debris field? How big a debris field, Cliff, have you been able to sort of pinpoint?

JOHNSON: Well, from what we can tell, it runs all the way from the northwest to the southeast, through -- starting in, primarily, at I-45 at Corsicana and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) County, all the way through Anderson County, all the way over to the Louisiana border. We're getting reports that maybe Nacogdoches County and St. Augustine County took the brunt of it.

O'BRIEN: And I'm sorry I'm not familiar enough with Texas geography to get a sense of how many miles it is. From I-45 to the border is what? JOHNSON: Well, I would guess -- as a crow flies probably anywhere from 120 to 150 miles. We're 60 miles from Nacogdoches, from Palestine. And we're about 60 miles to Corsicana going back to the west. So you're looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 to 150 miles from Corsicana probably to the Louisiana border.

O'BRIEN: OK, huge area.

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