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Space Shuttle Columbia Breaks Up on Re-Entry, Part V

Aired February 1, 2003 - 13:00   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Of course, we now get to know these people much better with this tragedy, Miles. And the Administrator O'Keefe was not a space expert at all. He was brought in there because of the great numbers. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) management man, former secretary of the Navy, was deputy man at the Office of Management and Budget, trying to make do with kind of short rations for NASA, trying to increase public support.
Now he's got even a bigger task, and that is to explain to Congress and, indeed, to the nation what happened today, and there will undoubtedly be people -- naysayers who will say man in space is too risky, but as Senator Hutchison said and I'm sure -- I know Sean O'Keefe will say that it is essential that we continue the man in space program.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Bob Novak, who had the last lengthy interview with Sean O'Keefe before we hear from him today; 1:00 p.m. Eastern, that's right about now, is when we expect to hear from him. We'll bring it to you the moment it begins.

But let's take an opportunity to recap. As we take a look at pictures captured by our affiliate WFAA, 9:00 a.m. Eastern time, 8:00 a.m. local time, what you're seeing are the final moments of the space shuttle Columbia, as it broke up into several pieces, at least five big ones that we are able to count, disintegrated at an altitude of 200,000 feet, traveling 12,500 miles per hour, some 15 or 16 minutes prior to its anticipated landing at the Kennedy Space Center. Crew of seven aboard had conducted a 16-day science mission, traveled 6.5 million miles in the course of that, and had by most accounts a relatively flawless mission.

The crew, led by Commander Rick Husband, featured Mark Brown, Laurel Clark, Kaplana Chawla, Willy McCool, the pilot, Mike Anderson, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to fly in space, featured a 16-day science mission where they conducted in excess of 80 separate experiments on themselves, on rodents, on all kinds of things, physical sciences, trying to learn more about how microgravity affects human beings as well as other phenomenon.

By all accounts, it was a successful scientific run, and then inexplicably, at 9:00 a.m. Eastern, just about the time that tape was shot, we lost communication. Now, let me just tell you how a shuttle -- this is a little different -- sorry, I anticipated something else. Coming in this way across Texas right about this point is where the breakup occurred. Should have continued down right along the rim of the Gulf Coast there through the panhandle of Florida and down into the Orlando area and make a steep right turn to Runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center.

That was the altitude and speed at the time of the breakup. Tremendous forces on the shuttle. The whole process of a de-orbit burn begins in the Indian Ocean, when they fire rockets which slow the shuttle down just enough for it to begin falling out of orbit. The shuttle, essentially, is in a constant freefall around the planet at 17,500 miles an hour, sort of the perfect balance between its speed and the forces of gravity. Slows it down just enough to begin that precipitous drop, and begins a series of broad S-turns to dissipate heat or to trade, I should say, speed for heat. It's covered with thermal insulating tiles, which are designed to protect the aluminum frame of the shuttle from that tremendous heat, which can exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Those tiles are a very fragile thing, which have caused a lot of maintenance headaches over the years for NASA as it tries to keep the space shuttle fleet flying now into its 22nd year.

We have CNN's Gary Tuchman on the scene at the Kennedy Space Center right near where that press conference with the NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is set to begin. Gary, I know you're just kind of hitting the ground running there, but if you can give me a sense of what the scene is like.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, as you might expect, it is a very difficult, sad and confusing time for the employees and visitors here at the Kennedy Space Center. I spent some time about 30 minutes ago at the visitor center, where tourists come on -- Saturdays are a very busy tourist day here at the Space Center, and there's a huge flag pole with the American flag flying at half-staff at the visitor center. And I saw a family, a husband, wife, and their two children stepping out of their car to go on the tour of the Kennedy Space Center, and there were a lot of people running around and the flag at half-staff, and the woman looked at me and saw it was CNN, and said, what's going on here? She had no idea what had happened. I quietly informed her what had happened, and she burst into tears.

That gives you an idea of what people are going through here. There are flags at half-staff throughout the complex. There is a sign, and you've probably seen this, Miles, when you drive in and it tells you how many days it is until the next launch, how many days it is until the next landing, and it says zero days until the next shuttle landing. And it is a very eerie case of deja vu for a lot of us. I was here in 1986. At that point, I know you, Miles, worked in Tampa for a local station. I worked in West Palm Beach, and I was here that day, after the Challenger exploded. It is the very same terrifying, terrible feeling here, deja vu almost two decades later. Exact same week of the year, first day of February today, January 28 17 years ago. This is a very sad day here at the Kennedy Space Center -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Gary Tuchman, thank you very much. As we look at this picture, which I believe came down a little while ago, the flag at half-staff, there beside the countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center. In the distance, you see launch pad 39a, which is exactly the point at which Columbia left the planet 16 days ago. About three miles from where that flag lies, sort of to the back of the camera, is the shuttle landing facility where it should have arrived 9:16 a.m. this morning. But as we have been telling you, that did not happen. It disintegrated shortly after losing communication with mission control over the state of Texas, somewhat ironically. It disintegrated into several pieces at high altitude and high speed, raining down debris over a huge, huge swath of Texas and into Louisiana, and there you see half-staff at the White House, live pictures there.

This one from the North Lawn, as we see the nation in the earliest stages of beginning to mourn a brave crew of people who understood these risks, and yet willingly, gladly embraced them.

Let's send it over to Heidi Collins, we'll get another update for you. We want to let you know that the minute Sean O'Keefe begins talking, we'll bring it to you.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, we will, Miles. We want to let everybody know, we're going to recap the details now of the tragic ending of the space shuttle Columbia mission. And what a tragedy it is. Here's what we know. NASA lost communication with Columbia just moments before it was scheduled to touch down in Florida at 9:16 Eastern this morning. Officials say they were given no indication of trouble.

Meanwhile, television images captured the crash separating into pieces as it streaked across the Texas sky. The investigation began almost immediately to find out what happened. An official in Washington says an act of terrorism was considered highly unlikely. Spectators who went to Kennedy Space Center to see the shuttle landing were left waiting.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are shocked. We were at a loss for words. We don't know what to think. We feel so sad and sorry for the families of people that have been lost. Just hope they're with God.


COLLINS: Search and rescue teams fanned out across south central Texas, looking for debris from the spacecraft. Officials warn people to stay away from anything that might look like a piece of potentially hazardous wreckage. Among the seven Columbia crew members, Commander Rick Husband was at the helm, along with pilot William McCool. Colonel Ilan Ramon, Israel's first man in space. Also, payload commander Michael Anderson, mission specialist David Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Dr. Laurel Clark. Miles, we're going to send it back over to you.

O'BRIEN: All right, thank you very much, Heidi Collins, for offering a good recap for those of you who might just be joining us for what has turned out to be a tragic day, February 1, 2003. The loss of the space shuttle Columbia. We are expecting a news conference from the NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, to talk about the picture you see on your screen right now, which is that stream of multiple fireballs, couple explosions there, you see the puffs of smoke coming out of it as Columbia streaked across Texas about 9:00 a.m. Eastern this morning. Losing communication with mission control; right about the same time doing exactly what you're seeing here, which is breaking up, in-flight breakup.

And that's all we can tell you about what happened, because we don't have a lot of information in the other stages of things like this. Of course, and of most current concern right now to officials is to secure the debris, which has rained down on a huge, huge swath of the United States, from Texas into Louisiana. Hundreds of miles of debris, and that debris, with its toxic brew associated with it, is to be avoided at all costs. Please let authorities know if you know of some. But please, by all means, don't touch it, you could hurt yourself badly, and we don't want that to happen on top of everything else that has happened today.

Let's bring in Barbara Starr, Pentagon correspondent, to see what, if anything, the Pentagon is aware of on this story -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Miles, we can tell you now that U.S. military forces from Ft. Hood, Texas are moving into position. Ft. Hood, Texas just announcing that it had launched helicopters, four helicopters now in the air, participating in what they are calling a search and rescue mission, but of course it is really search and recovery of the debris and the crew of Columbia. They tell us that this task force will be comprised of helicopters from several military elements at Ft. Hood, Texas. As we said, four helicopters now in the air. They will also be accompanied by military police from the 89th Military Police Brigade at Ft. Hood. We are told as they locate debris, military police will now move in and secure those debris sites.

Ft. Hood is also telling us this will be a 24/7 operation, that they will use their Black Hawk helicopters during the daylight hours to search for debris, and once darkness falls they will move in with what are called Kiova (ph) Warrior helicopters; these are helicopters, of course, with night vision capability and night vision censors.

Again, the military police will move in to secure the debris sites until the debris can be removed in a safe manner. We're also told that coincidentally this was a drill weekend for the Texas National Guard, that they have additional helicopters and personnel that are on standby, even a C-130 aircraft, and that they will move in once the order comes down. But so far it is the elements from Ft. Hood, Texas, and of course, quite coincidentally Ft. Hood this very weekend was getting organized to begin its deployment to the Persian Gulf for possibility military operations against Iraq -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: So, Barbara, the key point here is to try to preserve all this debris. And do you get the sense that there will be enough forces marshaled to this effort?

STARR: Yes, you know, Ft. Hood, Texas, can be quite clear is a huge military installation in Texas; 42,000 personnel, and, of course, the Texas National Guard has a lot of assets at its disposal -- troops, vehicles, airborne assets, so between the governor of Texas activating any National Guard elements down there on a state level and any requests that NASA may make to the Pentagon here today, there should be plenty of capability to move into these various sites very quickly, secure them and recover that debris -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, Barbara Starr, thank you very much. And stay close, please.

I told you a little while ago that this is a tough week for NASA already. January 27, 1967, the Apollo I fire. Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chafee. My apologies, I couldn't remember Chafee's name a little while ago -- it's been a long morning -- died in that fire. January 28, 1986, the Challenger disaster. It exploding 70 some odd seconds after liftoff. On that anniversary, the 28th, the commander of the Columbia mission, Rick Husband, radioed down some words of remembrance.


RICK HUSBAND, COMMANDER, COLUMBIA: We have got an announcement that we'd like to make on behalf of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) crew. And it goes like this: It is today that we remember and honor the crews of Apollo I and Challenger. They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives and service to their country and for all mankind. Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration to each of us, and it still motivates people around the world to achieve great things in service to others.

As we orbit the earth, we will join the entire NASA family for a moment of silence in their memory. Our thoughts and prayers go to their families as well.


O'BRIEN: Rick Husband, the commander of the space shuttle Columbia on January 28, 2003, commemorating the loss of Apollo I and Challenger. The ultimate sacrifice, as he put it.

Jerry Linenger, shuttle veteran, the man who spent a good deal of time aboard Mir, joining us now. It's hard to listen to those words, isn't it, Jerry?

JERRY LINENGER, FORMER ASTRONAUT: Very hard. I think every astronaut feels the same way, though, you know. There's a lot of people that have gone before us, and the people have the courage to do the things that they did. They know the danger, and we're all proud of them.

O'BRIEN: What, you know, the risks are so well known to the astronauts and their families and yet many Americans really don't have a sense of it, do they? I know you talk to people all the time. Do you get the sense that people have this feeling that it was almost a routine type of operation?

LINENGER: I think they do, Miles, and especially the re-entry. I think the liftoff people realize, wow, look at the power, they know it's a dangerous operation. But the re-entry, very dynamic, you're right on the edge of envelope, you're bouncing hard, fireball around you. Any astronaut, any person that's ever been through that experience knows that you are very close to disaster, and it's just the nature of what we do out in space.

O'BRIEN: Well, what you're unleashing is this tremendous potential energy, and that clearly is the focus, gets a lot of people's attention, including even a layman would understand that that is a difficult thing.

Let's talk about re-entry, though, for a moment, a time, as you say, when perhaps our guard is let down a little bit. It nevertheless, when you're going from 17,500 miles an hour over the Indian Ocean to zero at the end of the runway, there's a lot of things happening in between, aren't there?

LINENGER: A lot of things happening. Shuttle is at the point of the problem today is under computer control and very fine computer controlling, sort of rock the shuttle back and forth as you come down during re-entry, and that sort of dissipates some of the heat and lets some of the stress off, but it's a very dynamic process, all starting with the shuttle actually going upside down and backwards, firing the engines, as you mentioned, halfway around the world, then getting wings level, and then starting to hit some of the atmosphere.

And as you get lower and lower, you hit more and more atmosphere, and even though the speed is decreasing, you're hitting, you know, a wall, essentially, and you're diving down into it, and it really heats up.

O'BRIEN: It's -- give us a sense of what that ride is like. You do these big, broad S-turns. It's a very severe maneuver, isn't it?

LINENGER: The maneuver is not so severe; it's just the whole shuttle. I remember my first flight. The commander, very experienced, Dick Richards (ph), he, as we're coming down, bouncing around, he turns around and looks at me and his eyes are this big, and just says, "wow, Jerry, isn't this a wild ride?" And here's an experienced Naval aviator, off aircraft carriers all his life.

So I think anyone, again, that experiences that, it is just one very dynamic ride. I said it sounded like a locomotive train was going to run me down, you know, right behind me, and again, my first flight, I sort of looked over my shoulder to make sure it wasn't a train, and that's the normal re-entry. So if anything goes a little bit wrong, it can be tragic, and, you know, that's what happened today.

O'BRIEN: Well, and give us a sense, because while you're inside that flight deck and you're looking outside, you're seeing very conclusive evidence of the amount of heat which envelops a space shuttle.

LINENGER: It is all around you. You look out -- actually, the back window, you can see it, too, and it's sort of a collapsing, kind of a northern lights look. Everything very fluid. Plasma moving around, and it is just orange, red, big fireball all around you. So, you know, obviously, when things did not go well and once one piece comes off and you lose control, there's a lot of dynamic pressure, a lot of heat, and that's what you saw on all the films that you're looking at, with the different segments coming off, heating up, and multiple explosions, if you will. That's just debris going through a heat tunnel.

O'BRIEN: Now, in the way that the orbiter's air frame is protected, it is after all, made of aluminum, which would certainly melt in that -- if it countered that level of heat. The way it is done with lots of blankets, thermal blankets, but more importantly, especially on the bottom side, are those black tiles, which are designed, they're ceramic. They're designed to absorb and shed the heat and protect the shuttle. It's kind of a fragile system, in a sense, isn't it?

LINENGER: It is, Miles. If you ever felt one of those tiles, it is an amazing thing, it kind of feels like a piece of styrofoam. It is that light. But you put a blow torch on one end, and you put your hand on the other side, and you don't feel the heat, so, you know, the engineers came up with an incredible product there, and again, we don't know exactly what happened. All I can tell you, though, is the belly of the shuttle is well protected, but if you get into the wrong orientation any moment during that re-entry, you're not protected on all sides. And so once you start coming apart, there's nothing you can do.

O'BRIEN: So what -- a possibility, then, to look at would be if somehow the shuttle was not in the perfect, ideal orientation for some reason, that obviously would be high on the list of things that investigators will probe?

LINENGER: I'm sure they'll look very closely at that. They'll also look at some better film, hopefully. We had some telescopes pointing that way. Usually they follow the shuttle in. You might be able to see that initial moment where things, you know, came apart. I think software, some of the control systems, guidance and control systems may have failed and get you in slightly the wrong orientation.

The other thing you mentioned during liftoff, a piece of debris possibly hitting the shuttle. If you have a spot that's exposed to that extreme heat and it melts through the shell and then hits a control surface, you can get in trouble very quickly.

All those things are being looked at very hard, I'm sure. Trying to put the debris field together, try to look for clues and evidence to make sure it never happens again.

You know, I guarantee you the astronauts on board want us to keep pressing this thing and to keep going back to space and to make the improvements and not make their sacrifice something that's in vain. So I'm sure they want us to put the pieces together, figure out what went wrong and press on.

O'BRIEN: Let's -- we should remind our viewers that we're 20 minutes past the time appointed for Sean O'Keefe to speak. We do expect a statement from the NASA administrator from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he was to be to welcome back the crew. Any minute now, we'll bring it to you the moment it begins. Looking over my shoulder, still not there yet. Jerry, as we get into this scenario of something falling off during ascent. We want to be careful because it is so early, and I hate to get too far down the road of speculation, but it is common knowledge that there was a piece that fell off, that external tank, struck some portion of the -- I'll tell you what, we're going to go to the press conference right now. Let's go to the Kennedy Space Center live now via NASA TV.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will have no questions today, just a few brief remarks.

SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: As indicated earlier, we'll make a statement today at this point, and a little later this afternoon at about 3:00 Eastern time there will be a full technical briefing conducted from the Johnson Space Center. So at this point, we're just going to give you the circumstances as we understand them leading up to this particular tragedy today.

This is, indeed, a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts who flew on STS-107 and, likewise, tragic for the nation.

Immediately upon indication of a loss of communications on STS- 107, at a little after 9:00 a.m. this morning, we began our contingency plan to preserve all the information relative to the flight activities.

I immediately advised the president and the secretary of homeland security, Secretary Tom Ridge, at the point after landing was due to have occurred at 9:16, spoke to them very briefly thereafter to advise that we had lost contact with the shuttle orbiter Columbia and STS-107 crew.

They offered -- the president specifically offered the full and immediate support to determine what the appropriate steps were thereafter to be taken.

We then spent the next hour and a half working through the detail and information of what we have received, and Bill Readdy will walk you through the specifics of those operational and technical issues here in just a moment.

Thereafter, we have met with the family members of the astronauts who were here at Kennedy Space Center and are soon to be departing back to Johnson, to Houston.

The president has called and spoken to them to express our deepest national regrets. We have assured them that we will begin the process immediately to recover their loved ones and understand the cause of this tragedy.

At this time, we have no indication that the mishap was caused by anything or anyone on the ground.

We've assembled a mishap investigation team that immediately was assembled upon the point of past the stage in which the orbiter was to have landed here at Kennedy Space Center, a little after 9:30. And that team in turn is coordinating on a regular basis on all the facts that are pertaining to this from the Johnson Space Center and a rapid response team from here at the Kennedy Space Center as well as participants from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

In addition to these internal efforts, we have also appointed a mishap investigation board, an external group of people who are independent from NASA who will immediately be charged with the opportunity to look at all of the information that was immediately locked down right after our absence of communications.

Each of these individuals are safety and mission assurance- related officials in other federal departments of the federal government, from the Air Force, from the Navy, from the Department of Transportation, and across the federal expanse.

The investigation team also will be chaired by an individual contacted to serve who is external to the federal agencies. And we'll have the opportunity to coordinate all of the information again from an external view.

So we'll be conducting both the internal activity as well as an external review immediately to ascertain the causes and circumstances under which this tragedy occurred.

We'll pull together all of the federal agencies and local governments as well. In discussion several times this morning with Secretary Tom Ridge, the effort is heavily under way to coordinate an understanding of exactly where the orbiter path had taken it from West Texas toward the Kennedy Space Center here in Florida, and to make sure that the material on the ground is secured so that the investigation can begin promptly.

We urge anyone who believes they have discovered or found any material to stay away from it and to please contact local officials. The local first-responder groups for emergency services and so forth have been authorized and directed by Secretary Tom Ridge to assist in all manner. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is coordinating that effort on the part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Here this morning with the families of the astronauts and their friends started out as a pretty happy morning, awaiting the landing of STS-107. And we had highly anticipated their return because we couldn't wait to congratulate them for their extraordinary performance and the excellent efforts on the science mission on this very important flight.

They dedicated their lives to pushing the scientific challenges for all of us here on Earth, and they dedicated themselves to that objective and did it with a happy heart, willingly and with great enthusiasm.

The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over. And certainly the families of all of them we have assured we will do everything, everything we can possibly do to guarantee that they work their way through this horrific tragedy.

We ask the members of the media to honor that too, to please respect their privacy and please understand the tragedy that they are going through at this time. We will help the media assure that be the case as well.

We trust that the prayers of the nation will be with them and with their families. And again, a more courageous group of people you could not have hoped to know than the families of these crew members. An extraordinary, extraordinary group of astronauts who gave their lives and did it in a way that they knew exactly the risk but never in a -- ever do we ever want to see a circumstance where something like this could ever happen.

And we diligently dedicate ourselves every single day to assuring these things don't occur. And when they do, we have to act responsibly, accountably, and that's exactly what we will do.

To give you more of the operational detail of what has occurred here since 9:00 a.m. this morning, the associate administrator for space flight, a former astronaut, retired captain in the United States Navy, former test flight pilot, Bill Readdy, who has commanded two separate missions previously as an astronaut and is now, again, our associate administrator for space flight, has worked with me all morning, along with all of us here at Kennedy Space Center, to work through the details of the events as we know them and to present to you the facts as we understand them.

Again, the technical details that are being worked very diligently now will be covered again at 3:00 p.m. this afternoon out of the Johnson Space Center.

With that, I'm going to turn it over to Captain Bill Readdy.

CAPTAIN BILL READDY: This is a truly difficult day for all of us. Many of us were standing alongside the runway waiting to celebrate their triumphant return after a 16-day science mission.

I think you could tell from the down link that they loved what they were doing and they thought what they were doing was extremely important, pushing back those boundaries in science.

At 9 o'clock we heard that they had lost data from the space craft, and it appears that that was at about 200,000 feet and about mach 18.

The loss of data was somewhere over north-central Texas. And at the planned landing time of 9:16 we initiated our contingency action plan, called the Rescue Coordination Center and initiated a search and rescue effort.

Sadly, I think from the video that's available, does not appear that there were any survivors.

We have currently impounded all the data, including all the pre- flight certification of flight readiness for STS-107. And at this point, I'd have to say it's too early to speculate about the exact cause. Obviously, we're looking at all the data that we have available.

Those people who have videos, those people that have still pictures, we'll urge you to contact NASA so that we can coordinate those things that might be available.

And to reiterate what the administrator said: Those people that may find debris, do not touch it, do not move it. Contact your local authorities. Have them impound it and secure the area so that our technical specialists will be able to piece together the puzzle so that we can resolve what happened.

The immediate focus is on the crew families, and we spent some time with them. The president called. I'd have to say the families are bearing up with an incredible amount of dignity, considering their loss.

We all grieve for them, we all pray with them for the crew. But one thing came across loud and clear when visiting with them, is they knew that the crew was absolutely dedicated to the mission that they were performing. And I think you could see that in the video down link. They believed in what they were doing.

And in the conversations with the crew and their families, they said that we must find what happened and fix it and move on, and we can't let their sacrifice be in vain.

Today was a very stark reminder that this is a very risky endeavor, pushing back the frontiers in outer space. And after 113 flights, unfortunately people have a tendency to look at it as something that is more or less routine. Well, I can assure you, it is not. Each and every time I flew, each and every time my colleagues flew, we treated that with the respect it deserved from a professional standpoint.

And I have to say that, as the one responsible for shuttle and station within the NASA, that I know that the people of NASA did everything possible preparing for this flight to make it as perfect as possible.

My promise to the crew and to the crew families is that the investigation that we have just launched will find the cause, we'll fix it, and then we'll move on.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And we know you all have questions, and we will have a news briefing at 3:00 and we'll give you that opportunity at that time. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: We just heard finally there from Lisa Malone (ph), public affairs officer with the Kennedy Space Center at NASA. She was preceded by Bill Readdy, the associate administrator for human space flight, who was himself preceded by the administrator of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, telling us where the investigation is headed and offering some reminders of the risks involved in all of this.

An independent investigative team is already being assembled, which will look at this entire thing outside the federal government with some impartiality and come to some conclusions as to what might have caused Columbia to break up in flight over Texas, hurdling along at mach 18, we now know, 200,000 feet. Bill Readdy saying, I can assure you we'll find the cause, fix it and we will move on.

It was almost three years from the Challenger explosion to the return to flights. Space Shuttle Discovery. Just to put that in perspective for you. Two years and a healthy dose of a third before NASA flew again, and these kinds of things, depending on what it is determined it is, do take that long before NASA and the country, for that matter, can feel comfortable with moving ahead with piloted space flight. The 113th mission of the space shuttle fleet, and the second now to end in catastrophe. This time at the end of the mission, not immediately after launch.

We are going to hear additional technical information at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, and I don't know who exactly is going to be participating in that news conference, but we'll, of course, bring you that. That's coming up an hour and a half from now.

We've had an opportunity to isolate for you the precise moment when mission control first had a sense that there was a problem, the communication loss, the loss of data, the so-called telemetry on those computer screens. If we have that ready to go, let's listen in to that moment, and you can see how the conversation played out.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Continuing toward Florida, now approaching the New Mexico/Texas border. Altitude 40 miles. Speed 13,200 miles per hour. Range to touchdown, 1,400 miles. The shuttle in the left bank with wings angled about 57 degrees to horizontal.


O'BRIEN: You're listening, by the way, to James Hartsfield, public affairs officer.


JAMES HARTSFIELD, NASA PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER: And Columbia, Houston. We see your entire pressure messages, and we did not copy your last...



O'BRIEN: That's it. Roger, and then mid-communication, nothing. Let's wait another moment here. Tire pressure, tire pressure will obviously be something we'll be looking at. Space shuttle tires are under tremendous high pressure. They're filled with nitrogen and inert gas. That might be one area where they will be exploring. As we've been telling you, one of the keys for those people in mission control in all of this is preservation of the data. The moment something like this happens, they're supposed to capture what exists on their screens, gather any notes, any notes, anything on paper. Put it all together, box it up and put it in a place where it can be ultimately viewed by those who will be leading this investigation. That process still continues at mission control in Houston. As a matter of fact, we have live picture there of mission control, you can see that they're still at their consoles there, long now after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

Jerry Linenger, I hope you had an opportunity to hear Sean O'Keefe and Bill Readdy, did you not?

LINENGER: Yes, I did. And you know, Bill's a good guy and I'm sure everyone is doing everything they can.

O'BRIEN: Yes, that point about finding it, fixing it and moving on. Can you in this dark, dark moment, can you offer some assurance that that is, in fact, going to happen?

LINENGER: Well, I think based on the people that I worked with at NASA and the whole organization, the professionalism that they show, we have got other people that are going to follow in their footsteps, and you don't want to repeat a day like today. So I have 100 percent assurance in my heart that people are going to look at it as hard as they can, and really try to get to the root of what caused this tragedy today.

O'BRIEN: Tire pressure indications. What are we...

LINENGER: I just heard that.

O'BRIEN: Should we do anything? Should we make anything of that, do you think?

LINENGER: You know, I think any abnormality that was, as you mentioned earlier, the tile or an object hitting possibly the orbiter during launch, they're going to look through every part of that mission, any indication that there was some kind of problem. Tire pressure sounds like a minor thing, but perhaps not. I mean, the tires are protected, obviously, during re-entry, and if the tire pressure's increasing, you know, heat expands things. And so if that was the case, possibly there was a problem in that critical area. You know, when you look at all the data, you look at anything slightly off and you try to make sense of it.

O'BRIEN: If those tires were heated up and exploded, certainly that would take the doors off and expose the underbody of the shuttle, which, of course, it would be extremely vulnerable at that point. Hydraulic lines going through there, that sort of thing.

LINENGER: That's correct, Miles. So, again, when you try to piece this thing together, you'll look at any abnormality, try to put the whole picture together, look at the debris. Unfortunately, the debris, of course, is going to have re-entered itself, so you are going to have a lot of molt metal, and it will be hard to put those pieces back together, but you try to piece it together, and then you try to come up with what caused the problem. And as Bill Readdy just said, you fix it and you press on.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk for a moment, go back to the beginning of the mission and this piece that apparently fell off the external tank, whether it was a piece of ice or a piece of foam, maybe a little bit of both. I don't know if we still have that tape in the gate ready for air, but we can talk about it nonetheless. What happened was there was a piece that fell and struck the left wing. What -- without getting too far down the road here as well, that obviously is an area that will be looked at. They knew about it shortly after launch, looked at that and determined after some excruciating analysis that there wasn't a great deal of concern, as best I could discern. I know you weren't plugged into the engineering analysis of that, but this is, in general, a big area of concern at NASA.

LINENGER: Sure. You know, if you -- you have been to the pad, I know, Miles, but a lot of people don't appreciate the fact just the sound waves bouncing off the ground and back up can shake the shuttle and damage things. So there is a flash of water, literally a flood of water that goes on underneath the launch pad, not to dissipate the heat, but to absorb some of the sound because all that sound waves come back could shake the shuttle.

Ice forming on the external tank has been a problem in the past. That breaks loose during the flight, during liftoff. So all those things are looked on very carefully. The good news on that, I guess, is that they have some cameras positioned down there, very good cameras that are looking very closely, and again, the analysis 16 days ago was that it looks like it didn't do anything of concern. Bottom of the shuttle, you can't afford to lose a tile or two. It depends on the area, but you can get back in, even with some tiles off if it's not in a critical area. So you look at it, but I'm sure they're going to reexamine that and look even harder now at that whole situation.

O'BRIEN: All right, Jerry, I would appreciate if you could sit still for us for just a little bit, stay close. We're joined here in Atlanta by Randy Avera, who was an engineer with the shuttle program in the dark days of the Challenger era. Mr. Avera, good to have you with us.

RANDY AVERA, FORM. NASA ENGINEER: Good to be here, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Take us back to those days. The investigation, the way the investigation was conducted and try to relate that to what's happening right now.

AVERA: Well, we were always working very hard to provide the most perfect orbiter and space shuttle vehicle for launch. A tremendous amount of test and checkout is involved, and, of course, training and crew readiness. And on the day of the crash, as today, everyone was very disappointed, very shocked and aggrieved. And you have to pick up your spirits and do the work, as John Young, one of the astronauts, the commander of the first mission, has always said, just do your job. And it's time now for NASA and the American people and people around the world that support space exploration to do our jobs.

There is going to be a lot of forensic science that is going to be required to do a thorough investigation of this particular accident, and the space shuttle orbiter is a very complex design of electrical, software, mechanical systems and structures, and flight dynamics that are similar to the X-15 experimental aircraft that flew during the 1960s.

O'BRIEN: Of course, one key difference with the X-15 is the X- 15's body itself was designed to sort of shed its heat. This -- the shuttle has those tiles, and that's a little different system, isn't it?

AVERA: It's quite complex and integrated system. There are about five different types of insulators. High temperature, medium temperature and low temperature capabilities of insulation. A breach of any of those insulators can cause immediate damage to the substrate or structure below that, and that would directly affect the margins of safety of the structure in the flight loads that are applied and what the stresses on the vehicle are.

But it's important to realize that NASA has already executed a plan to look at the evidence, document the facts, bring in the laboratories and scientific equipment to do a thorough analysis to know exactly what the facts are. Speculation is the first step in being inaccurate, and we learned back in the very first days of the Challenger crash investigation that what we thought could happen with the main engines of the shuttle, the cryogenic hydrogen/oxygen in the rear of the orbiter, in fact, were not the problem. And we also had wrong impressions about the fate of the crew as far as the crew module flight dynamics and the ballistic trajectory, and whether or not the crew was alive or had an opportunity, if they had the proper equipment, to do an ejection or bailout.

O'BRIEN: What do you think -- we've said this earlier, and it should be pointed out -- there is no ejection system on the space shuttle. That was ruled impractical and too expensive early on in the program. There is a bailout technique, which the crew performs and practices frequently in the course of their training, but in this case, that was not an option, was it?

AVERA: You're correct, Miles. In the first early flights, five or six flights of Columbia, there were two ejection seats and the flight crews were limited to two astronaut pilots. Those were seats that are similar to the SR-71 Blackbird ejection seats. Those were decommissioned when the shuttle was deemed operational, and currently what we have is a system that, as a NASA engineer I had worked on it at the Kennedy Space Center, the barber pole bailout system.

But that system is really only good for orbiter flight modes, where the wings are leveled and the air speed is under 200 knots, under 250 knots, and that's for blowing the side hatch off of the orbiter crew module, deploying the telescoping barber pole, and then doing a one at a time sequential bailout with parachutes on their backs of the crew. But at these very high altitudes and very high mach numbers of mach 18 at 12,000 feet, that's not practical or even reasonable.

O'BRIEN: And the pole is there to keep them simply, the person bailing out, from striking the leading edge of the wing. We should point out to our viewers; that's why they slide down the pole, but this, as you say, not an option here.

Randy, if you can just walk us through quickly sort of in areas of in your mind a priority. If you were conducting this investigation, where would you start looking first down the list of priorities?

AVERA: Well, the first step is to secure the data in the centers of -- the NASA centers around the country. That data is very important. Paperwork, digital data that could be recorded. Also to secure the crash site and to have no contamination whatsoever of that crash site.

Weather could play a factor. We had the Atlantic Ocean, the salt water of the ocean and the currents dealing with debris on the surface of the Gulfstream headed northbound, and other debris that was down on the bottom of the ocean floor. So all of this apparently being on the land mass in Texas, it's important to have weather conditions that are tolerable but to do an immediate preservation of this evidence and to collect it in a professional and accurate way. Documentation is everything. And tracking of the samples that will go to many labs for chemical and mechanical and structural analysis is extremely important.

O'BRIEN: Randy Avera, former NASA engineer. We'd like you to stay close, if you could, as well. We would appreciate that. We appreciate having your expertise here.

Let's get a recap for folks who might just be dipping into the story. Let's take it over to Daryn Kagan -- Daryn.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Miles, we're going to handle this in two ways. Of course, this is a developing story, we'll keep moving it forward, but we do realize that there are people who are tuning in as we go, and so we do want to recap so that you know the exact amount of information we know up to this point involving the space shuttle Columbia.

We begin with NASA's oldest shuttle. It broke up this morning as it descended over central Texas. The shuttle was on its way toward a planned landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We have video to show you from our affiliate WFAA in Dallas. It will show you multiple vapor trails as the shuttle was breaking up.

Now, as you're watching this, the altitude was just over 200,000 feet. Seven astronauts on board. They included six Americans and the first Israeli ever in space, payload specialist Ilan Ramon. Debris fell over a very wide area from near the Dallas area to the Texas/Louisiana border. People as far east as Shreveport, Louisiana, reported seeing and feeling an explosion as the shuttle broke apart. NASA is setting up an independent board trying to determine exactly what happened. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O'KEEFE: This is, indeed, a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts who flew on STS-107, and likewise, tragic for the nation.


KAGAN: That from a news conference you saw live if you were with us in the last hour here on CNN, the first one that NASA has put out. They're saying another one at about 3:00 p.m. Eastern, where they will take questions. Of course, you're going to see that live right here on CNN.

As we mentioned, Columbia, the oldest in the shuttle fleet. First launched back in 1981. It was on its 28th mission.

We're covering this story all across the world, from Israel here to the States, and across the States, and Judy Woodruff is in Washington, D.C. with more -- Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Daryn. We are keeping an eye on the story here very much here in Washington. With me in the studio is CNN's Patty Davis, who covers aviation for us. And Patty, you got a little more information about what the Federal Aviation Administration is doing to collect and preserve the debris that is scattered over several states.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what the Federal Aviation Administration has done is it put in effect a temporary flight restriction over Fort Polk, Louisiana. And what it has done is anything within a 60-mile radius of Fort Polk, Louisiana and below 3,000 feet, no plane allowed in that area. FAA trying to keep planes out of the way of anybody who may be involved in a recovery effort there for debris, trying to protect that debris, and let those teams do their work and not have anybody get in the way.

Also, we're told that Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge has designated the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, as the lead agency to coordinate response and recovery of debris. Now, Ridge has called officials in Arizona and New Mexico, warning them about possible debris and trying to make sure that they preserve that debris so that this investigation can take place and they can piece together just what happened here.

WOODRUFF: Patty, it's our understanding that Tom Ridge has been contacting the governors. You mentioned Arizona, New Mexico; he's obviously also been in contact in Texas, where it's assumed the flight broke up. Oklahoma, as well as Louisiana, where you mentioned the -- there is an effort now to restrict the air space. We've also seen news reports of people in Arkansas who saw an explosion and presumably may see debris. So we're talking potentially four, five states involved here.

DAVIS: We're talking, yes, a huge debris field. This shuttle appears to have broken up at about 200,000 feet in the air. Now, if you consider how far up a normal commercial aircraft normally flies, 35,000 to 40,000 feet. That would have a wide degree field. Imagine how wide at 200,000 feet in the air these pieces would be flying, so definitely it will be a multi-state effort.

WOODRUFF: No question about it. Patti Davis, who covers aviation for us. And Patty mentioned Tom Ridge, the new director -- new secretary of the new department -- first secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security. Of course, so much of his attention has been focused on keeping the country safe in the aftermath of 9/11. Now, of course, he's dealing with a very different kind of tragedy, but one that will require all of his attention as well.

You can imagine this happening on a Saturday morning here in Washington, this is a city of tourists, always flocked to one of the most, if not the most popular museum in Washington is the Air and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian institution. There with us on the scene is our own Bob Franken. Bob, and I assume you have been talking to tourists and others who have to be as deeply affected by this as we are.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: If not more. These are people who were coming to the Air and Space Museum. This is one of the most popular exhibits, of course. It is the Columbia shuttle exhibit. You can see in back of me the NASA feed. You can see the replica of the shuttle in back of me, and you can see pockets of people as the briefing was going on. There was this somber, very sad look, and of course we still have other people here who have been coming here to visit, almost like they're coming to a shrine. And among them, have been people from Israel.

Your name, sir?

ZIV: Ziv. Z-i-v.

FRANKEN: And tell me how you must feel.

ZIV: That's a great loss. It's a tragedy. As an Israel, I mourn and grieve with the families and friends of the crew that was lost. Of course, the Israeli and American people. And it's a bad day. But I hope in the future it will have a more suck successful ending than this one.

FRANKEN: Your country was celebrating because of the inclusion of this astronaut.

ZIV: That is true. Everybody was very excited back at home, and this was a very bad ending for what could have been a great day.

FRANKEN: And among those who are here are many young people. One of the ambitions always has been to be an astronaut. How do you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that it's a terrible loss, and I just pray for the astronauts' families that they should just -- it's just a loss, and I just pray that they just be happy for them. Just be happy. FRANKEN: And here's your mom. How did you tell him this morning?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, actually, we heard about it -- we were out at the Arlington Cemetery here, and we watched it on the news. And we were headed over here, anyway. So -- like I said, it is a terrible tragedy. So many things people take for granted we just all of a sudden think, oh, another shuttle has gone up in the air, it's something that we just take for granted anymore, it's not something to take for granted, at all.

FRANKEN: Had your son ever expressed the desire to be an astronaut? It is almost every child's dream.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, they all say that at some time, but you know, unfortunately we had a great loss today, but we'll be learning from this and move forward, I believe.

FRANKEN: Thank you very much. What you're hearing, of course, is very typical of the reaction you'll get here, reaction that you will get around the country, reaction around the world. Here in Washington, Judy, people have a place to come to express that reaction. What amounts to, as I said, a bit of a shrine to the tragedy that occurred earlier this morning -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, Bob Franken at the Air and Space Museum here in Washington. Bob, we have just learned that President Bush will address the nation from the White House from the Cabinet Room in just a few minutes. It's about three minutes before 2:00 Eastern time. We're told the president will speak to the nation at 2:00.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, who's been at her post all morning. Suzanne, I know they've been planning, making plans, but just now they've made the big announcement.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely. We saw a couple of hours ago, President Bush, who arrived back here at the White House returning from Camp David, cutting that trip short. We saw him enter the residence and then on to the Oval Office with his chief of staff, Andy Card. We were told that he was notified of this tragedy shortly after it happened, and at 10:30 he spoke with the director of NASA about the details of all of this. He came back to the White House to better monitor the situation.

Judy, as you know, the White House, the flag here lowered at half-staff just a few hours ago. Very symbolic of the tragedy here, recognizing that tragedy. As you may recall, this is really a time for comfort, to comfort the nation as well as to inform -- to mourn the loss. When it was January 28, 1986, when President Ronald Reagan had this very sad duty, he went just hours after the Challenger had exploded and he said -- I want to read this line to you -- this is the last line that he delivered in his speech to the nation, saying, "We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and flipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." Clearly, this is a very important moment for the president. A need to confront -- to comfort the nation, and also to talk about the sense of bravery, the sense of dedication that these people had aboard the shuttle.

We have also learned that the president had spoken with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As you know, one of those aboard the shuttle was an Israeli citizen, giving his condolences, passing that along to Israel as well -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Suzanne, you're absolutely right, this is one of the most important jobs, functions that a president can perform. Not only is the president the leader of the country, the one who is making decisions day in and day out, but the president must be the consoler in chief at a time like this, a time of great loss, a great tragedy, and you do remind us of the role that President Reagan played in 1986. The nation shocked because at that time it was the first space accident in something like 20 years. America was completely rocked back on its heels by the idea of that there would be astronauts lost in space.

And I remember, because I was covering the Challenger explosion then. I was working for the Public Broadcasting System, for PBS, and President Reagan's remarks played an enormous role in holding the country and bringing the country together. And the line that you quoted, slipping the surly bonds of earth is one that I think all of us remember. I have every reason to believe that President Bush and the people around him remember that and are acutely aware of the important role that the president plays at a time like this.


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