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CNN LARRY KING WEEKEND

Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy

Aired February 1, 2003 - 21:00   ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, seven astronauts die in the skies over Texas only minutes from landing. Welcome to a very special edition of LARRY KING WEEKEND. We'll be interviewing many people during the course of this hour. We're also going to try to include your phone calls. This is a very sad night around CNN and around the globe, certainly at NASA.

We start with two people particularly hit by this. Joining us on the phone are Doug and Betty Haviland. Their niece, Navy commander Laurel Clark, M.D., died on Space Shuttle Columbia today. Also on the phone with us is Laurel's brother, Dan.

Doug, how did you hear about it?

DOUG HAVILAND, NIECE LAUREN CLARK IN CREW: Well, we checked in with CNN to -- we knew the landing was going to take place this morning. And they weren't on yet, but then we got a call from our son, Bruce, said that there was trouble with the shuttle. And then we checked in again with CNN and they were beginning their coverage. So we saw the footage of the breakup.

KING: Betty, what a horrible couple of years for you. Your son Timothy was killed at the World Trade Center, right?

BETTY HAVILAND, NIECE LAUREN CLARK IN CREW: That's right. Tim had been very excited about the prospect of Laurel taking off in space and had planned to go down with his wife and two stepchildren to see her take off. But of course, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

KING: Also on the phone with us is Dan Salton, who's sister was Laurel Clark. How did you learn, Dan?

DAN SALTON, SISTER LAUREL CLARK IN CREW: Well, I was -- got up early this morning, was watching it on the Internet. I actually had been watching it -- the coverage -- watching NASA TV live on the Internet as much as I could for the last two weeks. And I woke up early just to soak it all in and to experience it, to hear her voice one last time, which I was able to do, and to be able to talk to her about it later. I knew that she was going to be flying down upon the flight deck this time. And I wanted to talk to her about it afterwards.

KING: There is no way, Doug, to describe feelings at this point, is there?

D. HAVILAND: No, you're kind of in shock for a while. And it was a little the feeling of here we go again.

KING: Yes.

D. HAVILAND: We tend to see what was taking place.

KING: Doug, we're going to cut away for a minute. And we're going to go a news conference being held by the relatives of the late William McCool, the pilot commander. Let's watch.

QUESTION: Are you still in shock or (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

AUDRA MCCOOL, MOTHER OF ASTRONAUT: No, it's very important. It was very important to Will. He was very much into working with children, helping them learn about science. Not only Willy, but all of the crew were very excited about this mission because it was a science research mission, which they felt would have so many benefits for humanity, you know, as a whole.

So no, I think it would be a travesty if they did not continue the space program and the research programs and the knowledge that we can gain because it helps, not just us, but all of humanity with the things that can be done.

QUESTION: It's also a very rough time, but you're here speaking from Las Vegas. When are you going to join your husband?

MCCOOL: Tomorrow.

QUESTION: Had you planned on going down there for the landing or?

MCCOOL: No, we had not. I have seen a landing before . I went with my daughter once before. At the actual landing site, you do not see any of the crew anyway. So we just thought it would be better to wait until he got home to Houston, and then we could down and actually visit with him here about his impressions on the flight and that type of thing.

QUESTION: Mrs. McCool, your son would be -- so many people's lives tonight (UNINTELLIGIBLE.) What is it that you want them to know about your son?

MCCOOL: Well, I think smart question. I think they should know he was very dedicated to what he was doing. He was, you know, an excellent pilot on a -- I think he was very oriented toward humanity. And he was actually a very deeply religious young man as well. And just very interested in children. And one of his goals, you know, after he finished his career with the military was to work with teaching and working with children, particularly in the area of science. He was very interested in that. So...

QUESTION: Ms, McCool, it is the dream of so many children growing up to be an astronaut, an dream that your son realized. Yet watching these events that happened today can be very scary for a child. I know much of this mission was based around research projects, schools, all over the country were involved in some of those experiments. What would your words be to those children who watched today's events unfold, who at one time thought I want to be an astronaut and might be scared by what they saw today.

MCCOOL: Don't give up a dream on there because is important to all of us. And nothing is perfect. And unfortunately, his crew happened to be the one where it wasn't perfect, that something happened. But they should not give up the dream. They should carry on and try to realize their potential as best they can.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you very much, Mrs. McCool. You've been listening to a live press conference from Audrey McCool, mother of shuttle pilot William...

KING: OK, that was the mother of the late William McCool, the shuttle pilot. We're talking on the phone. We're going to hold them on the phone with Dan Salton and Doug and Betty Haviland, the brother of and uncle and aunt respectively of the late Laurel Clark, M.D., Navy commander all killed together.

Joining us now though is Miles O'Brien who has done yeoman like work all day today, one of the best covering space that I know of. His knowledge if -- where were you? You were prepared to anchor the broadcast of the landing, Miles?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Larry, actually I have two jobs here at CNN. I'm a weekend anchor. And I was already up and running at 7:00 this morning doing my anchor job. It was so happened my two jobs kind of intersected this morning. And we were going to talk to shuttle down as we typically do. And I spent a lot of time telling folks to take a look outside the window because we knew that the shuttle was going to streak across the continental United States, offer up a great pre-dawn light show.

As a matter of fact, I told our -- an assignment editor here, Paul Caran (ph), to call all the local affiliates in the path, make sure they got a camera out there and capture this event. What they captured was not what we expected, of course.

KING: In all your history of covering these things, had you shown particular concern over landings?

O'BRIEN: No, the truth of the matter is the first 8.5 minutes of the flight, Larry, is when we get most of the concern and most of the attention. That's when you have the potential explosive power of a small nuclear bomb, but you want to make sure it's unleashed in the right direction. And so, we watched that 8.5 minutes of powered ascent as they call it, from the launch pad all the way to space very closely. And the sense you get is once it arrives in orbit, the worst is over, if you will.

Well, it's second on the list of concerns would be the return to earth, when the shuttle undergoes tremendous stress, 3000 degree heat. And quite frankly, perhaps we weren't -- didn't have as much attention paid to it as it should.

KING: Was there any verbal warning of anything imminent?

O'BRIEN: No, it came very quickly, a very abrupt conversation, and no indication from the crew that they had any indication of what was coming up. We do know that there are a few sensor warnings which came just prior to the communication loss. The sensors went out. There was a conversation, a transmission from Rick Husband, the shuttle commander's sort of half of a Roger, if you will, that kind of thing. And it was all over. Things happened very quickly.

KING: We'll take a break and come right back. Miles will remain with us. We'll talk to some eyewitnesses and some more phone conversation with the relatives as well. This is a special edition of LARRY KING WEEKEND. We'll be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Yeah, booster ignition and lift off of Space Shuttle Columbia with a multitude of national and international space research experiments.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, good morning, Houston. Have a great time on orbit and really excited to come back home.

BUSH: The Columbia's lost. There are no survivors.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: At 9:00 this morning, mission control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia's lost. There are no survivors. On board was a crew of seven. Colonel Rick Husband, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anderson, Commander Laurel Clark, Captain David Brown, Commander William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, and Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We'll talk to some eyewitnesses in just a moment, but I want to -- a couple other quick things with Dan Salton and Doug and Betty Haviland on the phone. We'll get back to Miles O'Brien, too.

Dan, I heard you talking during the break with your -- with the uncle and aunt. There will be some kind of service in Houston on Monday, is that right?

SALTON: No, I don't think it'll necessarily be on Monday. All I'm hearing right now from NASA is that we should come down. we want to support the family. We want to support John Clark and Ian as much as we can. And we're going to wait to go down until Monday is what we're hearing. And the soonest NASA does hope to do something for us, for the families, and the soonest that will happen is Tuesday.

KING: And that will be in Houston, not Florida?

SALTON: That's correct, in Houston.

KING: And...

B. HAVILAND: We will be glad to be there and assist in whatever way we can.

SALTON: Right.

KING: Doug and Betty, you're going to go, right?

B. HAVILAND: If it's possible, yes.

KING: Have you spoken to your brother-in-law, Dan?

SALTON: To my brother-in-law John, no, I have not talked to him directly. I had talked to people who are in contact with him. And tonight, his brother, Dave Clark from Tennessee is heading down there. And my brother, John Sultan from Albuquerque's flying down there. And they're going to be with them as of about 9:00 tonight. So...

KING: And how old is his sister's...

B. HAVILAND: And we're in Atlanta at this point.

KING: How old is your sister's son?

SALTON: Ian is 8 years old. And he's going -- he's the one we are most concerned about.

KING: Yes, you bet.

SALTON: He's the one that we're going to support. He's the one that needs us the most.

KING: Thank you very much, Doug and Betty Haviland, Dan Salton. Thanks so much for talking with us. And please acknowledge our deep concern.

SALTON: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.

D. HAVILAND: Thank you and you're welcome.

KING: Joining us in Dallas, Gary Hunziker and his wife Liz Hunziker. And they were eyewitnesses.

Gary, where were you and what did you see?

GARY HUNZIKER, EYEWITNESS TO COLUMBIA DISASTER: That's correct. About 8:00 this morning, we stepped out the back door to the patio to witness the overflight of the shuttle. I heard last night that it would be overflying about 8:03 and I was determined I wanted to see it. It was very easy to spot initially. When we stepped out, there was a very prominent contrail behind it. And the shuttle itself was very brightly lit by the morning sun.

To the naked eye, at least, everything looked normal. I saw nothing that would make me the least suspicious that anything was wrong. I did have a pair of binoculars with me. And I was hoping to get a better view through those. The shuttle was moving very fast. I'd never seen it before, so I was kind of surprised how fast it moved. Had a devil of a time getting it in the binoculars. When I finally did, my immediate reaction to Liz was there are already some chase jets with it. I saw two bright spots slightly behind on each side of the shuttle. And I thought what was I seeing at that point were some chase jets, escorting the shuttle in.

About 15 minutes later, I turned on the television. I figured since we saw the overflight, I would like to see the landing. And of course, the first thing I heard when I heard the television on is that 8:00 a.m., they had lost all visual and radar contact with the shuttle. Then they went on to say that the shuttle was flying at 12,000 miles per hour and at 200,000 feet. And instantly, it struck me certainly when I saw it couldn't have been chase jets.

KING: Yes.

G. HUNZIKER: What I saw must have been debris.

KING: And Liz, what was your reaction?

LIZ HUNZIKER, EYEWITNESS TO COLUMBIA DISASTER: Well, my morning started off, I was just thrilled that I could witness the shuttle flying over. It was a beautiful day in Dallas today. Absolutely blue skies, very clear. I was really taken by the amount of jet stream that was behind the shuttle. And initially, because I was just looking up at the sky, I did not see what Gary had witnessed and thought were the jets, until I had backed up and kind of changed angles. And then I was able to see these other, what I thought were jet streams. And obviously as we found out minutes later were not.

And so, my excitement really turned to one of just disbelief. It kind of reminded me of the day that we witnessed the Challenger.

KING: Yes.

L. HUNZIKER: It's just very -- it was very difficult. And our hearts go out to their families and just a difficult day.

KING: Yes, in retrospect, Gary, you saw nothing then break off? You thought it was just two planes following them? G. HUNZIKER: No, I didn't. I just -- I looked at with the naked eye for only a few seconds and then was really working, trying to get in binoculars. And when I got it in binoculars, I had such a narrow field of vision, that I really didn't see much except the shuttle and just the debris very near to it. But it wasn't evident to me that it was breaking up. No, I had no feeling that way at all, not until I heard the news reports later. Then I realized what I'd actually seen.

KING: Thank you, Gary and Liz. Thanks for talking with us.

Back to Miles O'Brien in Atlanta, who is our weekend anchor and who is our CNN space correspondent. They're not going to find every piece of debris, are they, Miles? I mean, that's illogical.

O'BRIEN: I can't imagine they would. Larry, you know, there aren't many very big pieces. The biggest piece we've seen is about four feet in length. Most of them are very small. And we're talking about a debris field which could begin in Arizona and end in Louisiana, quite literally.

KING: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Certainly more than debris is concentrated in that area of Texas, but nevertheless, there are so many little pieces over such a broad area. Quite frankly, that smoking gun piece may be elusive.

KING: Meaning we may never know?

O'BRIEN: Well, certainly finding a piece that gave you some clear-cut guidance that perhaps a tile fell off or a cluster of tiles fell off. That kind of thing would offer conclusive proof, but there are other ways of finding these things out as well. I'm told tonight, Larry, they're looking at the possibility of these flaps on the rear portion of the shuttle. They're called elevon. It controls the up down pitch, as they call it. There was some unusual movement in those immediately prior to the disintegration. What that means, I don't know. They can find a piece of the elevon, for example, that might offer them some clues.

I think it's really important to point out if people see these pieces, stay away from them because not only are they essentially toxic monomethyl hydrozene nasty stuff, can give you cancer, it can burn you. Nitrogen tetoxide (ph) same stuff, terrible stuff. But on top of that, if you're interested in souvenirs, it could be a souvenir which might be in fact proof of what happened to the Space Shuttle Columbia. Wouldn't that be awful if that became some kind of strange souvenir?

KING: And one other thing, Miles, can we take solace in the fact that at that altitude, and at that speed, they were gone in a second?

O'BRIEN: I -- you know, I think it's probably safe to say, Larry. I think things happen very, very quickly up there.

KING: Miles, yeoman like work. Thank you so much.

O'BRIEN: You're welcome.

KING: Miles O'Brien, CNN space correspondent, weekend anchor.

When we come back, we're going to talk to an extraordinary lady. June Scobee-Rodgers, she's the widow of Francis Dick Scobee. He was the commander of the Challenger. Still to come on this edition of LARRY KING WEEKEND, a special edition, we'll talk with astronauts Alan Beam, Jerry Linenger, and Scott Carpenter. We'll talk with Walter Cronkite. And Senator Bill Nelson, who went up on the space flight. That's all ahead. We'll be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RON DITTEMORE, SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM MGR.: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL ANDERSON, ASTRONAUT, SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA: We're a very rugged crew, a very young crew. We have four rookies, first time flyers and three one-time flyers. So as you can see, compared to the average shuttle crew today, we're very inexperienced crew. So knowing that, we've gone to great lengths to make sure that our inexperience isn't something that's going to hamper us. We've worked very closely, worked hard together over the last two years to make this mission a success.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was astronaut Michael Anderson. And before we talk with June Scobee-Rodgers, whose husband piloted the Challenger, we're going to make contact with David Neal in Rusk, Texas, who was also an eyewitness.

David, what did you see?

DAVID NEAL, EYEWITNESS TO COLUMBIA DISASTER: Good evening. I was outside at the Palestine Airport, where we have our normal monthly fly-in. And I happened to be looking upward, looking for any aircraft. And I look up and I see a bright object. My only guess is, you know, a passenger jet with a large contrail. But it immediately thereafter where it started fanning out in little pieces and very bright blue colors. And so I immediately called the airport manager, who then called Fort Worth Center. And supposedly we're the first people to call on that.

At first, you know, that's all we thought it was, a passenger jet. And we were very afraid that we had just witnessed maybe a terrorist attack of some sort. And then, going inside, waiting to hear some news of it on the news, we then learned it was the space shuttle.

KING: Did you -- David, did you see anything that looked like a fire?

NEAL: I did not see anything that looked like a fire. I just saw what looked like a sun reflecting off an airplane. And then, it starting to turn a blue color. And a lot of little pieces coming off of it and fanning out in all different directions.

KING: Wasn't it going remarkably fast to you?

NEAL: Yes, it was. And being in the aviation business for as long as I was, I didn't believe there could be at 200,000 feet like they have been reporting because there were contrails even on the little pieces that were coming off of it. And it did seem to be very -- going very fast.

KING: You think it was lower than 200,000 feet, based on your experience with flights?

NEAL: Yes, sir. And a lot of the other pilots there at the airport believed the same thing. So...

KING: That's interesting. We'll follow up on that. You thought it was lower.

NEAL: Yes.

KING: David, thanks very much. David Neal, an eyewitness on the scene in Rusk, Texas at the airport. We'll be calling on you again.

Joining us now from Chattanooga, Tennessee is June Scobee- Rodgers, the widow of Francis Dick Scobee, who was commander of the Challenger on January 28, 1986. Where were you this morning, June?

JUNE SCOBEE-RODGERS, HUSBAND DICK SCOBEE DIED ON CHALLENGER: I was at home. I had just turned on the television while I was emptying the dishwasher and when I heard lost communications, I dropped everything. Brought back some terrible memories from my family. It's tragedy for the entire nation, isn't it?

KING: You're the founding chairman of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. You've stayed deeply involved in this. You've remarried, right?

SCOBEE-RODGERS: I have, I have. I met Don Rogers, a general in the army at Arlington on Easter. And his wife had died. And we became good friends. And we've moved here to Chattanooga. And the Challenger Center is -- all the families came together to say, you know, the world knew how our loved ones died. And we want the world to know how they lived.

And the families for the Columbia crew must be devastated with the numbing shock that we know so well.

KING: What would you say to them? SCOBEE-RODGERS: Just to take each day, one day at a time, to feel the love of family and friends and to know that their loved ones have touched the face of God, that they're in God's hands. They were heroes. They were heroes like our firemen and police and our military. They were serving their country. The dream, vision was needed for space exploration. And they were wonderful examples to our nation.

KING: And they knew the dangers, didn't they?

SCOBEE-RODGERS: They know. When you're working in that field, space exploration, they're pioneers for the country, for our planet. They take that risk knowingly. And that makes them even that much greater a hero.

KING: We're going to take a break and come back with June Scobee-Rodgers and talk more about living after such a tragedy. She lived with it after Challenger. And today we have Columbia. And then we'll meet a major panel get together on this special edition of LARRY KING WEEKEND. We'll have another one tomorrow night. And joining us among the guests will be one of the veteran space correspondents ever, Hugh Downs. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID BROWN, COLUMBIA MISSION SPECIALIST: I mean, when you look out the window, you're not looking at the stars or the moon, you're looking at the earth. And when you look at the earth, invariably people say that they think about people. And they invariably say they think about the people that they kind of know and care about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was the late Captain David Brown. June Scobee- Rodgers, widow of Francis Dick Scobee, commander of the Challenger.

Do you think that as a society, we're kind of sanguine now about space travel? That unless something like this happens, we treat it as a -- just another day of flight?

SCOBEE-RODGERS: I was so happy for NASA that safety was the first issue, that they were concerned about everyday. That's their focus.

KING: But the public, do you think the public gave much thought to it?

SCOBEE-RODGERS: I think that they looked at it and more than likely, like any flight, any airplane flight another mission. But I know the astronauts and their families didn't look at it that way. It's truly a tragedy for that loss.

KING: You lost your husband. Now your son, is that true, he flies F-16s in the Reserves? SCOBEE-RODGERS: My son is an F-16 pilot, Rick Scobee. I've talked to him the first thing this morning and several times today. And I've talked to my daughter, Kathy. They're wonderful children. And it's very difficult for Dick Scobee's parents. The commander, Husband, had just sent a message on the 28th of January to say it was the anniversary for the lost of Challenger and he wished well to the families and the Challenger crew. It's so unfortunate that the families of Columbia didn't get to greet them and congratulate them on a successful mission.

KING: Is there a chance your son might go to the Gulf?

SCOBEE-RODGERS: My son might be called to duty, as will many sons. And that's a difficult time in our nation, a traumatic time, I'm sure, for our president. He gave a wonderful message to the Columbia crew today. My heart is to him as well, as he is so concerned with our nation at a time when we may be close to war and when loss of a space shuttle crew.

KING: Yes.

SCOBEE-RODGERS: And nation, indeed the world is in disaster today.

KING: Yes. Thank you, June. Good seeing you. Good seeing you looking so well, too.

June Scobee-Rodgers, the widow of Francis Dick Scobee, commander of the Challenger.

Now when we come back on the phone with Walter Cronkite, and we'll visit with Scott Carpenter, an original Mercury 7 astronaut; Jerry Linenger, former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Navy medical core captain; Alan Beam, former astronaut was the lunar module pilot for Apollo-12. That was the second lunar landing. And Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, one of the leading congressional experts on NASA, who made a space flight himself. They're all next right after this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: 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. We trust 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM MCCOOL, COLUMBIA PILOT: For me, it doesn't really affect me. I'm just so focused on the mission and the training. And gosh, I've got a Navy background. I've been flying off carriers and doing night landings and dealt with pitching decks in bad weather. So you just kind of get immune to -- in a sense to the environment around you. And you deal with it. And I -- it'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 that 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 has given comfort to me and my crew mates, and in particular our families along those lines.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was the last Commander William McCool. Joining us now on the phone is Walter Cronkite, former anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News. He's anchored CBS' coverage of multiple space shots and the Apollo moon program, of course.

Scott Carpenter is in Phoenix, Arizona. It's good to see him again. One of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. He flew America's second manned orbital flight on May 24th of 1962. In Travers City, Michigan is Jerry Linenger, former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Navy medical core captain. He flew on the STS-64 aboard the shuttle Discovery.

In Houston is Alan Beam, former NASA astronaut, retired U.S. Navy captain, was lunar module pilot for Apollo-12, the second lunar landing, and was the fourth man to step on the moon.

And in Washington is Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, one of the leading congressional experts on NASA. And while a member of the House, he served as chairman of the subcommittee on Science, Space and Technology, trained and flew as a crew member of STS-61C, a six day mission of the Columbia in January of '86.

Scott, what's your reaction to the occurrence this morning? Scott Carpenter first?

SCOTT CARPENTER, FORMER ASTRONAUT: OK, Larry, I think it is important now to -- for us to do two things. First, to express our condolences to the bereaved families. And second, maybe even more important is to realize that space exploration has become and will continue to be a vital part of our national character. We lost some wonderful young men and women today, but there are many more coming along who will gladly take their place. We will find the problem. We will select the way to cure it. We will be in flight again soon, because it is part of the national character. All you have to do is admit that the benefits justify taking the risks. Many are willing to do that.

KING: Yes.

CARPENTER: We will persevere and we will prevail and we will get back soon on the road to Mars.

KING: Walter Cronkite, do you think that the public at large was taking it as just another day and had lost interest generally in the daily coverage of space? WALTER CRONKITE, FMR. CBS EVENING NEWS ANCHOR: No, I don't believe anybody, Larry, can think of this as just another day. It's a really -- it seems that we are destined to be reminded from time to time of the dangers that we face in the exploration of space. We've become pretty blase about the success of our shuttle flights, and again to pay little attention to them until attention is called by a tragedy like this one today.

And I think was thinking so much of Scott Carpenter today. And I -- it's a delight to be with you, Scott, on this particular occasion. Sorry that we've got this occasion to do it, though, but I remember Scott Carpenter's re-entry into the atmosphere after the second Mercury flight. And the communications went out. And while the space patrol was getting information, telemetry that indicated that he was all right and gotten through this black period coming into the extreme of pressure in the atmosphere from outer space, we did not know that he was all right for are almost 45 minutes. And we understood how dangerous it was getting back into the atmosphere with the -- with that extreme heat on that speeding vehicle. And most of us thought that we'd lost Scott.

KING: I remember that well. Let me ask Jerry Linenger, what is it like in re-entry?

JERRY LINENGER, ASTRONAUT ON MIR DURING 1997 FIRE: Re-entry is very dynamic. You're inside a fireball. And everything's moving around you. A lot of vibration, violent. You know, you know that you are on the edge. Any astronaut that's flown in space during re-entry I think realize it is a critical phase of flight. And if something goes a little bit wrong, you're out of control. And...

KING: Now what do you mean by a little bit wrong? Give me an example of...

LINENGER: It doesn't take much -- well, if you're, for example, your guidance or your control, if you tip the wing a little further than it should be tipped, if a tile comes undone in a critical spot, you've got fire all around. You've got tremendous heat, especially a Mach 18. You've got about 3,000 degrees on the underbelly of the shuttle. And if you've got a weak link in there, if you've got a missing tile it melts through the aluminum, it's a critical component.

And once that chain reaction of bad things starts happening, it's runaway train. And that's what we got into today.

KING: Alan Beam, was re-entry a concern for you?

ALAN BEAM, ASTRONAUT ON 1969 MOON LANDING, SKYLAB 1973: I'd say so. Of course, launch is the most critical time because that's the time when most things have to work right. Entry is the second most critical. And these two things stand out among all of them because they're about the only two times a space flight where you get doing something. And if something starts to go wrong a little bit, you can't stop and fix it. You -- in launch, you're just going to keep launching. And you may discover you've got a problem. And if you -- if it can't solve itself almost, you're sunk. And the same way with entry. You start it, you start entering and gravity and speed, you're going to keep entering until you've slowed down greatly. And if something starts to go wrong, and as Jerry says it doesn't take much.

We forget sometimes how difficult it is to fly a spaceship in from Mach 20 all the way down to landing speed at about Mach .3 and have it work right. It just seems like it's easy, but it's not. It takes our best engineering and skill.

KING: Senator Nelson, before we take a break, will you concerned about landing when you went up?

SEN. BILL NELSON (D-FL), FLEW ON SHUTTLE 1986: Larry, you stuff any kind of fear. You're so focused on what you're doing, but you realize the risk. And it's a part that the crew understands, but the American people think that it's as routine as getting in a car and taking a Sunday afternoon drive. It isn't.

KING: We'll take a break and come right back with our outstanding panel. Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a truly difficult day for all of us. Many of us were standing alongside the runway, awaiting to celebrate their triumphant return after a 16-day science mission. Sadly, I think from the video that's available, it does not appear that there are any survivors.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAUREL CLARK, MISSION SPECIALIST: Well, good morning, Houston. We're getting ready for a big day up here. Had a great time on orbit. And really excited to come back home. Hearing that song reminds me of all the different places down on earth and all the friends and family that I have all over the world. Thanks and it's been great working with you all the other folks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Scott Carpenter, is there some sort of cockpit recording device like they have on jetliners in shuttles?

CARPENTER: No, Larry, don't have that.

KING: What was it like when you were re-entering and had that problem?

CARPENTER: It is exciting. It goes -- the...

KING: Good word.

CARPENTER: ...the entry is part of a flight regime where the status of the flight is rapidly changing. And you have to be very careful that and assured that everything goes right. It's quite a fireworks display. You've got a lot of important things to watch happen, but it's something that training prepares you for. And if everything goes right, you come back safely. Unfortunately today...

KING: Did not.

CARPENTER: ...that did not happen.

KING: Jerry Linenger, do you think they had a warning?

LINENGER: I know they had a little warning about tire pressure from what I heard. You know, all the little indicators, I think the people on earth started seeing a few sensors go out. And I think they were starting to get worried, but I think the people on board, I think it hit them very rapidly with very little to react to. And even if it had been a warning that something bad was happening, not a lot they can do when you're going 12,000 miles an hour at that critical part of flight.

KING: Alan Beam, one of our people before, who was viewing it from the ground and who works at an airport, is veteran of these things, swore that that was lower than 200,000 feet. He thought it was a jetliner.

BEAM: Well, first of all, he thinks that's a contrail, which means condensation trail, which means the fuel from your jet engine -- you know the unburned fuel freezes. And that makes the white trails behind the airplanes. Well, that isn't what was going on with the shuttle at 200,000 feet. There's no water behind it. What you're seeing is heat from the heat shield. And it's making sort of a smoky residue.

So it's completely different thing. And if you think it's contrails, they only work up until about 45,000, 50,000 feet. So you know, that's what confused him.

KING: Ah, Senator Nelson, and you and Walter Cronkite are two civilians in a sense who went up. Would you go again?

NELSON: I would, Larry. And I've said that 17 years ago, almost at this exact time, having our crew just returned to earth, 10 days later, Challenger launched and blew up. I was asked that question then. And I think most anyone on a crew would go again. It's important...

KING: Walter, do you regret - I'm sorry, go ahead, Bill.

NELSON: It's important -- Larry, it's important to the future of this country. We are as a character of American people by nature explorers and adventurers. And we never want to give that up. If we do, we're a second rate nation. And that's why we have to overcome this problem and get back into the flight.

KING: Walter, you regret that you never went? CRONKITE: Oh, very much so, Larry, very much so. I think it's one of the great disappointments in my life that I never got up there. I followed the space program from the very beginning and wanted to get aboard. I thought I was on the short list to make the trip that eventually went to the school teacher. And we lost McAuliffe, of course, on that Challenger trip.

But the adventure of it, is the experience would be inevitably great. Do you know, I was impressed today. I wonder if others were with the fact that we have that -- those incredible amateur pictures of the approach of the Columbia, and whether it was -- whatever the sort of the smoke or contrail, whatever, it seems to me that NASA's got some incredible pictures of the Columbia really almost peeling apart. You could see the parts coming off of it. And I would think they would carefully examine those pictures, they're going to be able to determine what parts those were even.

KING: Yes.

CRONKITE: And it might simplify the search for what happened and why.

KING: Isn't that a good point, Alan Beam?

BEAM: I think it is a really good point. They're going to study those. And they have other cameras that no one is probably taken a look at yet, the film, because they don't want to take a chance at losing it. And they're going to spend a lot of time studying this. And I think they're going to be able to, you know, pinpoint exactly when something gave way, and sort of what maybe it was and put that together with the telemetry. And they'll have a step by step in tenth of a second by tenth of a second timeline before too long, talking about what happened where. And then they'll back up with that and say what could have caused this. And then they'll probably go from there.

So they're where -- I'm sure they're working on that now, collecting this other film.

KING: Senator Nelson, Scott Carpenter was very confident they will find the answer to what went wrong. Are you?

NELSON: I am, Larry. When you add everything that everyone has said with the fact that there are pieces of the wreckage on the ground in a pattern that went in a southeasterly direction, across Texas, and if the public is responding as responsibly as it apparently is, leaving those pieces of wreckage alone and notifying the authorities, they're going to get a lot of evidence from that.

KING: Scott, everybody's gathering in Houston, the families and the like. Do former astronauts go to those things? Are you going to go?

CARPENTER: Time will tell. I'm not sure yet, Larry.

KING: Do you keep involved in the safe program, Scott? CARPENTER: Of course, we go -- all go back to Houston for our annual physicals with the newly installed medical core, which includes geriatric surgeons.

KING: Jerry, do you think this will diminish the program at all that people are going to sour on it?

BEAM: I don't think so. You know, those astronauts are brave souls. And I think we need to carry on. I have to say something, Larry, to Walter Cronkite. He lived vicariously through me because when I was 14 years old, and the people I'm on this show with were up there on the moon, he once was doing a broadcast and got a tear in his eye. And was so choked up he couldn't talk. We were on the moon. And I said I want to do that someday.

And so, Walter Cronkite helped to inspire me to become an astronaut. So he lived through us. And I think all of us astronauts lived through each other. And that was one fine crew up there today and the future astronauts will be on their shoulders.

KING: Walter, how does that make you feel?

CRONKITE: Well, that makes me pretty proud to know that I contributed that great man to the space program. And I appreciate the kind words.

KING: Alan Beam, do you miss it?

BEAM: I miss it a lot. I left there some 22 years ago. And I think about -- particularly when they're doing something exciting like EVA or repairing the Hubble space telescope or assembling the space station., I'll tell you, today, I -- one of the things that's happened in the space program is the person that -- the astronaut, whether it's male or female, they get the excitement and honors and everything else of going into space, but they're mates that are home, male or female, depending, they just get a lot of the worry and...

KING: Yes.

BEAM: ...when I...

KING: We're out of time, Alan. But I tell you what? We're going to have you back, okay?

BEAM: Sure, fine.

CRONKITE: Oh Alan...

KING: We're going to have you all back.

CRONKITE: We think of the fact...

KING: We're out of time, Walter, but you can talk to him off the air. Walter Cronkite, Scott Carpenter, Jerry Linenger, Alan Beam, and Senator Bill Nelson. We're going to have them all back. They'll be another special edition of LARRY KING WEEKEND tomorrow night at our regular time. Thanks for joining us. And sad good night.

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