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CNN BREAKING NEWS

NASA Briefing, Part I

Aired February 1, 2003 - 15:31   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go now to Kyle Herring, and ultimately Ron Dittemore, screen left, Milt Heflin, screen right, NASA's Johnson Space Center. Let's listen to a more technical briefing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... and then we'll throw it open for questions.

So with that, I'll turn it over to Ron.

RON DITTEMORE, SHUTTLE PROGRAM MANAGER: I'm sure you understand how difficult a time this is for us right now. We're devastated because of the events that unfolded this morning. There's a certain amount of shock in our system because we have suffered the loss of seven family members, and we're learning to deal with that.

There's certainly a somber mood in our teams as we continue to try to understand the events that occurred. But our thoughts and our prayers go out to the families of Rick and Willie and David and Kalpana, Michael, Laurel and Ilan -- true heroes. And we are suffering for the events that have happened this morning.

As difficult as this is for us to do, we wanted to meet with you and be as fair and open with you, given the facts as we understand them today. We will certainly be learning more as we go through the coming hours, days and weeks. We'll tell you as much as we know. We'll be as honest as we can with you. And certainly we'll try to fill in the blanks over the coming days and weeks.

As difficult a situation as this is, we are moving forward. We have established a number of different teams. We have contingency plans for just these types of events, though we never expect to use them.

We have implemented these contingency plans. We are preserving data. We are beginning thorough and complete investigations. We are mobilizing our forces, our engineers, our technicians, our safety and quality, our best experts to try and understand what went wrong.

I do want to take the time right now and express my appreciation for the tremendous number of agencies that are coming to our aid from across the country, both federal, state and local, that are assisting us in our recovery operations.

I also want to express my appreciation to the public for assisting in the recovery, for notifying us of different debris, where it is located, that we might get to is as quickly as possible.

It's also appropriate that we tell the public to be careful with the debris. What we fly in space is operated, in many cases, with toxic propellants, and some of the debris may be contaminated. So we need to be careful. And we don't wish any harm to come upon anybody that would be honestly seeking to help.

At this hour we have not positively identified any items that we have recovered. We are staging in an attempt to ensure that all recovered items are managed appropriately. But at this stage, I haven't received any real information on debris or status of crew remains.

I can go back to the start of the day, filled with excitement and anticipation. Today was a great day to land in the Florida area. We had all positive indications that it was going to be like every other day where we have landed in Florida -- good weather, anxious team to welcome a fantastic crew back, families that were excited about welcoming their loved ones back, and no indications at all of any impending threats to the vehicle.

The first indications of a potential problem occurred minutes before 8 o'clock central standard time. The first indications were of the loss of sensors, temperature sensors in the hydraulic systems on the left wing. Both the left inboard and left outboard elevon temperature sensors.

They were followed seconds and minutes later by several other problems, including loss-of-tire-pressure indications on the left main gear, and then indications of excessive structural heating.

And Mr. Heflin will talk in a minute about some further details.

I have to caution you that we cannot yet say what caused the loss of Columbia. It's still very early in our investigation, and it's going to take us some time to work through the evidence, the analysis, and clearly understand what the cause was.

But what we are doing is we are impounding hardware so that we can preserve evidence. We have stopped processing at the Kennedy Space Center. We are preserving hardware around the country in our different facilities. We are impounding data here that represented the last data that we received from the crew. And we will be pouring over that data 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future.

DITTEMORE: Again, I express our sadness to the families for their loss.

And we'll do our best to answer your questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Ron.

Milt?

MILT HEFLIN, CHIEF FLIGHT DIRECTOR: First of all, just some personal observations and comments to begin with. Then I'll review some data with you.

This is a -- this is a bad day. I'm glad that I work and live in a country where we have -- when we have a bad day, we go fix it. Ron said, "We'll fix it."

I can talk to you some about what went on in the flight control room with the entry flight control team under the guidance of flight director Leroy Cain. Ron said it was a good day to land. In fact, many of us, as we came in today, were marveling at the fact that Leroy Cain did the ascent as well and probably the most difficult things that we deal with during launch attempts and entries is dealing with the weather, as you all are accustomed to.

And we marveled and felt good about the fact that, you know, launch we didn't have any weather issues to worry -- in fact, any weather issues anywhere in the world that we were concerned about. And today, it was a very minor thing to talk about some fog, I believe, but nothing really hard to work.

So as Ron mentioned, this was a fantastic mission and just seemed to be coming to the right conclusion.

Just some specifics for you. And bear with me, this is relatively recent, fresh information. And as you can imagine, in the next several hours and days, this will be -- we'll get closer to many details, I'm sure.

Around 7:53 a.m. central time, as Ron mentioned, we saw indication of off-scale, low temperature measurements on the left inboard and outboard hydraulic systems. This is loss-of-the- temperature measurement. It wasn't any indication that it was high or low. We just lost it.

About three minutes later, around 7:56 a.m., in the left main gear tire wheel well brake line and tire temperatures, there we saw an increase.

Now, I need to tell you that during this time the vehicle was performing fine. We had no indications of any problem.

Around 7:58 a.m. central time, a couple minutes later, we have what we call bond (ph) line temperatures. These are temperature sensors that are embedded in the structure of the vehicle. We have them all over the orbiter.

Three of these temperatures on, again, the left side of the vehicle, the left wing area, the off-scale low reading again. This was not high indication, low indication, but they were -- we lost measurements.

Don't have the seconds here. Clearly seconds will play a part in our analysis, but I'm giving this to you at the nearest minute.

Around 7:59 then, central time, left inboard and outboard tire temperatures and pressures, off-scale low. About eight measurements total during that time. One of these -- one of these measurements sensed on board by the computers gave the crew a message, indication that they could look at on their displays. And they -- we think they were acknowledging that measurement that they saw.

Again, the vehicle was flying with no problems at that time.

And when things like this happen, when a crew gets an alert, you acknowledge it, they recognize they've seen it, and then we go and do what we might need to do with it.

And as far as I know, that was the last transmission from the crew. I've asked a couple of people, I haven't heard the tapes myself. I'm not sure what they said at the time. But they were acknowledging, we believe, that indication that they'd seen.

Then we lost all vehicle data. It looks like it was around -- and I apologize, it looks like my little cheat sheet here doesn't have the last central time on it and I'm not going to try to convert it to you at this point, but it was around 8 o'clock central standard time. Altitude was 207,135 feet, and traveling at a mach of about 18.3.

And the flight control team, during this time -- again, we lost the data, and that's when we clearly begin to know that we had a bad day.

That's all I've got.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, thanks.

As you can imagine, we have a lot of centers around the agency that are involved today. So we're going to try to limit the questions to one and try to get through as many as we can.

I need you guys to do me a favor and when you raise your hand, wait for a microphone and please give your name and affiliation first.

And we're going to start here in Houston and then go around to the other NASA centers. So let me see a show of hands, and then we'll try to get somebody to you.

Let's start, just start right here along the front row and work this way.

QUESTION: Where will the debris be taken?

DITTEMORE: We haven't yet identified a central location. Part of the activities that are ongoing, even at this very moment, is to stage our teams into a location in northeast Texas.

We are still identifying the locations for our teams to meet and gather and start this process of recovering debris. And part of their first activities is to identify the staging area, the collection point of all the debris. So that's some work that's going to be done later on today. The teams are -- let's see, they're not quite in the air. They're staging right now at the different airports, and they are converging on northeast Texas. And so, that's some work that's still in front of us.

QUESTION: At this point, what is the status of the shuttle program and particularly the upcoming missions you were going to have? Have you decided to put all of those missions on hold? And do you have any kind of idea of how long the program will be out of service?

DITTEMORE: Well, of course, this thing happened just this morning. And we put in motion some stop-work types of activities.

As I mentioned earlier, we've minimized our processing at the Kennedy Space Center so that we don't do anything that might disturb some evidence.

We are also slowing down our manufacturing processes in the MASHU (ph) facility in Louisiana where we manufacture the external tank. We're doing that in different areas around the country for different pieces of hardware.

What this slowdown means as far as the launch schedule is yet to be determined.

We also will be having an investigative board outside the agency, as mentioned earlier by Mr. O'Keefe, that will come in and help resolve this situation to everybody's satisfaction so that we clearly understand what was the root cause of the problem.

And once we get on that path of understanding the root cause, then we'll be better able to say whether it affects future flights. If we can put it off to the side and get it narrowed down and say, "OK, we understand the root cause, here's the things we do about it or need to do about it," and then accomplish that corrective action on the other vehicle flows, then we'll be able to pick up our flight progress again.

How long that's going to take, it's too early for me to tell. But I do believe that we'll continue to meet with you and keep you informed of just how this is progressing.

I've talked to Mr. Bill Gerstenmaier, who is the program manager for the International Space Station Program. They have scheduled a -- they had a previously scheduled progress launch tomorrow. And that progress launch will proceed as scheduled.

They have reviewed the contents that are going to be shipped to the space station. And those contents are appropriate, given the fact that we may not be there for a while.

There -- they have enough consumables, supplies for the crew to go through the later part of June without having a shuttle visit. So there's some time for us to work through this and get back on our schedule. And we're just going to have to work through that in the coming days and weeks. And we'll keep you informed on just the impact to the manifest.

But right now, there is a -- certainly there is a hold on future flights until we get ourselves established and understand the root cause to this disaster.

QUESTION: And I was wondering if you could explain to people who are not from this area really how tightknit of a community this is, not just here on the NASA JSC Campus, but all around here how much of an integral part of the community this is to you all.

DITTEMORE: Well, it's more than a job. This is a passion for us. Human space flight is a passion. It's an emotional event. And when we work together, we work together as family members. And we treat each other much that way. And whether it's the loss of a crew member of a loss of a member of our ground team or processing teams, it's a sad loss for us.

And so we are a very close community. We understand the risks that are involved in human space flight. And we know that these risks are manageable, but we also know that they're serious and can have deadly consequences.

And so we are bound together with the threat of disaster all the time, and we know we must count on each other to do what's right. We must count on the ground teams to process correctly. We must count on our suppliers to follow the procedures, just like we have identified to them. And we count on the flight crew members to fly the vehicles within the specifications.

So we all rely on each other to make each space flight successful. So we have a dependency, and it's a professional dependency, and it's an emotional dependency. And so, when we have an event like today where we lose seven family members, it is devastating to us.

And it's more than just us in this location. There is an emotional attachment to human space flight. It peaks our interest, it captures our imagination.

I received a couple of phone calls this morning immediately following the -- when it became apparent that Columbia was no longer going to land. One phone call was from my brother in Phoenix, Arizona, not associated with the space business. I haven't talked to him yet. I just received a message certainly extending his thoughts and prayers. I received another phone call from my son in Provo, Utah, with the same emotional outpouring of sadness.

And I'm sure this is true across the country. We're seeing that from the public. We're seeing that as people that really care about the space program and understand what it means to this nation reflect their thoughts, their prayers, their caring attitude to us. And we want them to know we appreciate it very much. As we struggle with our emotions in this difficult time, we appreciate the thoughts, the prayers, the care and the support.

Milt, you might have some thoughts also.

HEFLIN: Well, yes, it is -- the community out here is extremely closeknit. I've been through three of these, and each time you see a coming together of the community here.

Our landscape has changed. The space flight business today is not going to be -- it's going to be much different than it was yesterday. It was different after Apollo I; it was different after Challenger. And it was different because this community -- Ron's right. The passion is here.

And as Ron was talking, I was thinking about your question, and I thought, you know, sometimes it's a shame that it takes things like this for this country to pull together and care. And it shouldn't. Man, we're good. This country is great. It shouldn't take these kind of things to cause a coming together.

QUESTION: You mentioned about eight sensors and one of those that triggered notification inside the shuttle. Can you tell us which sensor that was and whether it was an abnormal reading on whatever sensor it was or whether it just that the sensor was no longer functioning?

HEFLIN: There were in the left inboard and outboard -- these are tire temperatures on the left-hand side, OK. Temps and pressures -- and, Ron, help me out here if I get that mixed up. And they all went what we call off-scale low.

In other words, there's a bottom number; zero or maybe not zero, not necessarily zero, but there's a bottom number of the measurement. They all went off-scale low, indicating loss of the measurement itself.

And I cannot tell you specifically which one of the eight. We'll find that out, but I don't have that right now.

DITTEMORE: An easy way to think about that is the measurement was no longer reading. It was not giving an indication. It's as if someone just cut the wire.

QUESTION: You indicated that, at 7:53, was the first -- you first lost some sensor information. And you indicated toward the end there was an acknowledgement from the crew. During the rest of that time period, there was any dialogue, any communication with the crew during that period?

During the rest of that time period, was there any dialogue, any communication with the crew during that period? And was -- if there was, was there any indication from them that there was a problem that they could see on board?

HEFLIN: Yes, at 7:53 a.m. we did have another set of four measurements in the hydraulic system on the left-hand side that went off-scale low.

Now, this was reported by the flight controller responsible for the mechanical and hydraulic systems in the orbiter, reported to the flight director.

When this happens, then it's followed up by if there's any action to take, if there's anything that we see that needs to be done, that flight controller will tell the flight director and the crew -- and a call might go to the crew.

These were measurements that did not have -- we have many measurements onboard. Not all of them are enunciated to the crew. They don't need to be. We see a lot more information on the ground than they do. So they did not see this. So they had no indication.

We saw nothing else to indicate any difficulty at all, because had we seen anything else, we would have taken some action. That's -- you know, we work, we work very hard. We train very hard to react in a very short amount of time to situations. But we don't -- if we don't have anything that we see that we've got to do, then we don't spend the time talking about it because we focus on the next event and so forth.

QUESTION: We had heard some reports that during launch there had been some concerns that some debris hit the wing. Is that true? And is that any cause of concern that that could have caused today's problems?

DITTEMORE: It is true that right after launch -- and I don't remember the time frame as far as the seconds -- there was a piece of foam that is used as insulation on the external tank in the area of what we call the bipod, which is the forward attach between the orbiter and the external tank. There is a piece of foam that was shed.

And in our review the following day of the launch films, we saw this piece of debris drop off, and it looked to us like it impacted the orbiter on the left wing.

Where on the left wing it's very difficult for us to tell. Somewhere between the mid and outward span. Was it the leading edge? We don't know. Was it underneath the leading edge? We really don't know. To the best of our ability, that's what happened. We spent a goodly amount of time reviewing that film and then analyzing what that potential impact of debris on the wing might do and would there be any consequences.

Through analysis and through our ability to call back on our experience with tile, it was judged that that event did not represent a safety concern. And so the technical community got together and, across the country, looked at it and judged

And so as we look at that now in hindsight, that impact was on the left wing, and, certainly, we have all the indications that Milt talked to you about were on the left wing. We can't discount that there might be a connection.

But we have to caution you and ourselves that we can't rush to judgment on it because there are a lot of things in this business that look like the smoking gun but turn out not even to be close. And so we really have to do some regression analysis. We have to look at what Milt described to you and then back up in time through analysis to see if we can piece together or not this was a tile problem or whether it was a structural issue or some other event.

We don't know yet. What will help us determine that is inspecting the debris. That will really help us. And so we're very anxious to get certain pieces back to look at. And that will determine whether or not this particular event, whether it was the debris hitting the orbiter or some other event was the cause of this problem or this disaster today.

That will really help us. And so we're very anxious to get certain pieces back to look at, and that will determine whether or not this particular event, whether it was the debris hitting the orbiter or some other event was the cause of this problem, or this disaster today.

QUESTION: You talked a little bit about the hardware. What goes forward now with the astronaut training? Does that continue? Does that stop? What happens?

DITTEMORE: Well, there's going to be a period of mourning in this community. There's going to be a period where we're just going to get together and support each other and huge each other and help us go on.

But we're going to fix this problem. We're going to get back on the launch pad. We're going to launch shuttles again as soon as we're ready.

The training is going to continue. The best therapy in this business is to get on with your job. The best therapy in the flight control world is to get in that control center and train for the next mission. The best therapy in the flight crew world is to continue with your training, stay focused on the job ahead, stay focused on what we need to accomplish. And that's what we are all going to do.

There's going to be a subset of us that will be working together to resolve this problem. And we will do that, and we will do that quickly, efficiently, and we'll do it safely. And we will not fly again until we have this understood.

In the meantime, life goes on, training goes on. We'll start manufacturing hardware again as soon as we know that we have preserved evidence.

So in a few days, I suspect we will start pulling things back to what we understand and releasing certain activities to start up again. But in the next several days, it's going to be a period of quiet, of reflection, and where are we going to go from here as far as what do we need to do to resolve this issue.

QUESTION: Did you have a device onboard that is the equivalent of a black box?

DITTEMORE: No, we don't. We do not have a hardened black-box data recorder or a voice recorder. We do have recorders. We do have recorders of both data and voice. If they survived the entry and the impact, we will certainly look to see if there's any information there.

As Milt mentioned to you on the time line, he talked to you a little bit about the sensors that just kind of quit working.

We also know that during this time frame, the vehicle was operating perfectly. It had gone into a roll reversal, which is a standard maneuver where the vehicle banks left or banks right; it's a standard maneuver. And when it does so, it does so to bleed off energy. And you do a number of these roll reversals so that you land at the right speed right at the Kennedy Space Center.

It had rolled itself into a roll reversal, and everything from a flight-control perspective was perfect. No indications of any problems. So we have some indications that it wasn't a vehicle loss- of-control issue. And so we're getting some hints of where we need to go look.

Whether or not these recorders survived and will be useful to us, I'm not really sure that's going to be the case.

QUESTION: I have a couple of questions. Regarding whatever it was, the foam that apparently fell off the vehicle at takeoff, was there any consideration during the flight that perhaps an EVA would be necessary, that you need to take a look?

Secondarily, I'm wondering about -- you guys talked about loss of sensor readings and some unusual sensor readings. Could you give us a sense of how unusual that is? I mean, does that happen with any frequency, or was that something that was alarming that you had never seen before?

DITTEMORE: The easy answer is the sensor reading, and yes, that happens. The fact that you have a sensor that just quits working is not an alarming factor.

In fact, we understand that several sensors can quit working, and they're all a result of not the sensor quitting to work, the results of an avionics box, a signal conditioner, a multiplexer that happens to fail. And its signature to you and me is it looks like someone just cut the wire.

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