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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Special Coverage: Columbia -- The Shuttle Tragedy, Part I

Aired February 2, 2003 - 15:00   ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Miles O'Brien reporting live from the Johnson Space Center. This is the place where the astronauts live, where they train and this is a place today that is in deep mourning. It is a family, the NASA family, that is, a family of people who have like minded thoughts about space exploration and today like minded thoughts of grief as they go to their respective churches and they pray to their respective gods for the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, which perished, as we've told you, yesterday.
We have a lot to tell you about the investigation. We have live reporters all over the nation covering this story quite literally.

Let's begin with an update on the investigation and give you a sense of where the best and brightest at NASA, the real rocket scientists are in trying to piece together what might have happened on board Columbia as it streaked across the United States, over Texas, some 207,000 miles in altitude at a speed of mach 18,18 times the speed of sound.

An independent commission has been formed. It will be headed by the retired admiral who looked into the explosion on board the destroyer, the USS Cole, in Yemen. Hal Gehman is his name and he will lead an investigative team of about a dozen that will look independently at the body of evidence that exists right now, the data which was sealed and captured within a half an hour after the space shuttle Columbia fell off those computer and radar screens at mission control just a few hundred feet from where I stand right now.

In addition, there is an internal investigation ongoing right now, a so-called red team here at NASA, and it is already up and running and doing a lot of business. A significant series of meetings this morning and sources tell me that it, given what it is all about and how complex it is, it has gotten off to a good start.

Most of the time in this hour and a half meeting they talked about logistical issues, where people were, how to reach people, logistics, e-mail addresses. They did describe it as being a very organized meeting with a spirit of cooperation and they did say that so far those federal agencies, FEMA, the FBI, NASA, the military, all working fairly well together to try to pursue the ultimate outcome, which is to gather up those pieces and try to see if in those pieces there might be a solution to what is a very, very complex puzzle.

There is also -- and it's worth pointing out that that is in stark contrast to what happened in the immediate wake of the Challenger disaster. In the wake of that, it was utter confusion, mayhem, disorganization, recriminations. It was an entirely different NASA at this time.

This time, NASA seems prepared and organized and at least ready and able to accept the heavy responsibility of trying to determine what caused it in an organized and deliberate fashion.

The issue of the debris, this is something we've been talking -- we've been talking an awful lot about, the debris which might have, which fell off and did, in fact, strike the left wing on assent. It is the left wing which failed prior to the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Is that a coincidence? A key question right now.

All right, we, that is the question that is currently out there and what we're trying to do right now is get a sense of who knew what. And basically what we know right now is NASA says no one said to anyone in advance that this was a more serious problem than we were led to believe. In other words, this caught them unaware.

We have a live news conference to take you to in Sabine County in Texas.

Let's listen in.

BILLY TED SMITH, EMERGENCY COORDINATOR: The Environmental Protection Agency will do that with other testing.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) go ahead and drink water, take showers and...

SMITH: Sure. Yes, the way we've been, the word we've been given is that everything looks good.

QUESTION: Can you describe the large pieces of debris that you recovered?

SMITH: They, really, the large pieces of debris are really just what, about five foot, you know, four to five foot in diameter. They're about four to five foot in diameter, range in length there, you know, from just a few inches there to four or five foot also.

QUESTION: What kind of, what parts are there? Are they...

SHERIFF TOMMY MADDOX, SABINE COUNTY, TEXAS: No, we don't know what parts they are. All we do know is it is debris off the shuttle.

SMITH: And we, we're getting more resources in. The military has, well, the Department of Defense is sending representatives over now to give us any assistance that we might need. The FBI and NASA and all the federal agencies are working real close with us here.

QUESTION: Now, how far...

QUESTION: What agencies are here now?

MADDOX: What?

QUESTION: What agencies are here now? MADDOX: We've got all federal agencies almost. You know, we've got DOD, EPA, NASA...

SMITH: The FBI.

MADDOX: FBI. The Marshals, the U.S. Marshals Office.

SMITH: Marshals Service, Secret Service. FEMA is, you know, in the area, well, not in Sabine County, but they're in our area, so there's a long list. And we've got a lot of state resources.

QUESTION: How far from this area have those pieces of debris been found?

QUESTION: Can you speak into the camera so we can see your eyes?

QUESTION: What radius in this area would you say? How far from here?

MADDOX: What we have, our debris covers a, approximately a 250 mile, square mile area running from the west side of our county all the way to the east side. We are concentrating our search, you know, in that pattern. We, in some places there, the debris field there was narrower, some places there it's wider. But approximately about 250 miles.

QUESTION: What about the swath where the flick search is occurring right now for more body parts (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

MADDOX: Well, there are several, there are several areas. It's not just that one area there that we're searching. We have got several teams of 80 to 100 people there that are doing ground searches at this particular time, combined with aerial searches there from helicopters there that are being deployed.

SMITH: We continue to ask residents in the county and throughout the area to report all debris to us and to do not come in contact with it because it could be toxic and to please let us know if they find anything.

QUESTION: So in addition to body parts have you guys found things like crew items and helmets (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

MADDOX: We can't comment -- yes, we can't comment on that right now. You know, we have just found all, a lot of debris and just have categorized that, you know, described what it looked like, took the GPS coordinates and anyway waiting for the EPA there to come along and...

SMITH: Remove.

MADDOX: Remove all of this.

QUESTION: How's the reservoir search going right now? I saw a couple of your boats around. MADDOX: Yes, you know, that is being put into operation or will be put into operation shortly. We have done aerial searches there over that, not any ground searches or any from, by water yet, but we will be doing that shortly.

QUESTION: Are you going to send scuba divers into the water so search for equipment?

MADDOX: We don't plan to right at the moment. What we are going to do is combine the boat and the aerial searches using underwater cameras...

SMITH: Underwater cameras and sonar...

MADDOX: .... with the services there of the Jasper Emergency Corps.

QUESTION: Are there two pieces in the reservoir or one?

MADDOX: There are a, there are, as far as we know, there has been debris that has hit Toledo Bend (ph). You know, we know of several there that...

SMITH: That have been reported.

MADDOX: .... they have reported to us. We don't have confirmation on a lot of these. One or two of them there we do and...

QUESTION: Can you tell us what you do have confirmation about and what type of debris is (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

MADDOX: We don't know what it is. We just know there that it was metal and any way it's submerged.

SMITH: Yes, the...

QUESTION: Does that include the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) debris that's still down there?

MADDOX: Yes.

SMITH: Yes.

MADDOX: Yes. Yes.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the cameras that are being used for the underwater...

SMITH: It's an underwater camera that is mounted on the emergency corps boat and it's able to see underwater and at pretty good depths. It's been used effectively in drownings that we've had in Toledo Bend as well as Sound Ray (ph) (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

QUESTION: How deep is the reservoir?

SMITH: It goes anywhere from some places 40 or 50 feet to several feet.

MADDOX: And some places through there close to the river it will be close to 100 feet deep.

SMITH: Yes.

QUESTION: The FBI left with Styrofoam boxes at noon, raced out of here. Do you know what was in them?

MADDOX: I have no idea.

SMITH: It might have been his lunch.

MADDOX: It could have been the lunch.

QUESTION: No, I don't think it was.

QUESTION: Sheriff, can you talk a little bit more about people, you were talking about you're waiting for the EPA.

MADDOX: Yes.

QUESTION: In addition (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

MADDOX: Let me...

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

MADDOX: Yes, let me explain something. You know, first of all, this is a DOD operation, the Department of Defense. You know, we're here for one reason and that's to assist them, you know, carry on this operation, you know, for them. All of this there is -- all of the collection area has been designated that it will be taken and done by the Environmental Protection Agency.

So we are waiting for them to come and then they will start with the HAZMAT teams to remove all of this debris.

QUESTION: So if you all find debris, you're leaving it in place for the EPA to come collect?

SMITH: Yes, that's true.

MADDOX: That is correct.

QUESTION: That they...

SMITH: Unless it's some type of sensitive equipment, you know, or something like that they want to go ahead and get a...

QUESTION: Well, what kind of sensitive equipment do you speak of that would be...

SMITH: Well, any sensitive, any type of electronic equipment, you know, could, is sensitive and very expensive equipment.

QUESTION: How much of that has been found, sir?

SMITH: I don't think they've found a whole lot.

QUESTION: What about the body parts? How are they being removed? Immediately or?

SMITH: They have been removed immediately by the FBI teams.

QUESTION: Have you all discovered any new body parts today?

MADDOX: Not that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: Have you updated the number of sites?

SMITH: Yes, we're at around 150,160 sites at this time.

QUESTION: How far, 200?

SMITH: A hundred and fifty to 160.

QUESTION: That's in both counties or just here?

MADDOX: They -- no, that's just here. You know, this number continues to grow, I mean, by the hour.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: .... degree?

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Can you describe what the search turned up this morning off of the road just outside the county, the foot search?

MADDOX: I do not know all of that. They did discover a lot of debris through that area. I have not been briefed on what, you know, the particulars of that debris were.

QUESTION: Are they done searching that area for today?

MADDOX: No.

SMITH: No, we're not through searching any area at this time.

QUESTION: At least that's a (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

MADDOX: The searching there has just actually begun, as far as ground searching.

SMITH: Right.

QUESTION: The pieces in the lake that was found (UNINTELLIGIBLE) has been described as (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SMITH: It hasn't been found yet.

QUESTION: Oh, I see.

SMITH: Right. We only have, we had some fishermen that called in when the shuttle incident occurred that said that they saw something go in the lake.

QUESTION: Wasn't another large piece found somewhere on a ranch near here?

MADDOX: There have been several large pieces that were found. Any way, a lot of these there are sometimes three, three foot by five foot. But there have been several in that category there that they've found.

SMITH: And, you know, we're going to continue to find small pieces and it may be years before, you know, all of it's up. I mean some of them are so minute that there's no way that you'll ever find all of it.

QUESTION: Has NASA given either of you indication of what sort of parts or how large of parts may have survived that sort of fall from that altitude?

SMITH: They haven't, I don't, they don't really have any idea, I think, of anything as far as what might have survived that they have told us.

MADDOX: We don't have any word.

QUESTION: Has the EPA begun collecting these pieces that they're going to pick up?

SMITH: No.

MADDOX: No, not at this time.

QUESTION: Is the EPA here at this moment?

SMITH: No, they're not here at this time.

MADDOX: They are in the area...

SMITH: They're in the area but not here. They're doing water sampling at this time.

QUESTION: Oh, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

QUESTION: Is this a 24-7 operation, sheriff?

MADDOX: Yes, sir, it is. We have had tremendous response there from all the agencies that have assisted us there and this has been going on 24 hours a day.

QUESTION: Earlier you said a couple of pieces, maybe five, six, seven, do you have a route number for them?

SMITH: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). MADDOX: How far?

QUESTION: The couple of pieces of debris, large debris that you said were found.

SMITH: Oh, just...

MADDOX: Yes.

SMITH: I think there were two.

MADDOX: Yes, I think, two were found today.

QUESTION: Can you give us an idea of where in the reservoir the...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: .... piece was found?

QUESTION: Is there any clue that some water may not be drinkable at this point or maybe dangerous...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: .... is the water safe?

SMITH: Yes, the water is safe.

MADDOX: The, all the indication there that we have had from the EPA and anyway the other agencies there that are monitoring that, they say there that it is absolutely safe.

QUESTION: But they're still taking samples?

MADDOX: Oh, yes.

SMITH: Yes.

MADDOX: And we'll, I mean, for precautionary measures there, that will continue to happen.

QUESTION: So it could be -- it could turn out at a later point that maybe the water isn't safe?

SMITH: You would have to really get with the EPA on that.

MADDOX: Yes.

QUESTION: Do you feel comfortable having people in this area drink this water, though?

SMITH: Yes.

MADDOX: Yes.

SMITH: Yes. According to TCEQ, they told us that everything is OK.

QUESTION: Have you had any complaints from residents about foul smelling water since yesterday?

SMITH: No. Not at all.

MADDOX: No, we have not had any of that. We have had some concerns or some calls there of concern whether it was safe to drink it. And anyway, you know, our response there is what the EPA and the Texas commissioner have given us.

QUESTION: We've heard of some places where the debris that was located was then cordoned off with police tape but then later those pieces were stolen. And I'm wondering what is the plan to try to prevent more of these pieces from being stolen by individuals?

SMITH: Well, we have to tell you that the taking of any of this property is an offense on the federal level and there could be a possible imprisonment for that.

Yes.

QUESTION: Has anyone been arrested for this yet?

SMITH: No.

MADDOX: Not yet. None...

QUESTION: Have you heard any...

MADDOX: None that we know of.

QUESTION: But what can you do to prevent...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Excuse me -- what can you do to prevent, if the debris it scattered all over and it's not being collected, it's just being marked, then what can you do to assure that people won't come and take it?

MADDOX: We, when we marked this, we try to secure this as well as we can for the manpower there that we have had. It has been such a magnitude of small debris and -- that, you know, some of it there was just not able to secure.

QUESTION: How much manpower do you have in the field at this point?

SMITH: Probably 200,250 persons.

QUESTION: So what happens if you're not able to secure all of this debris that's scattered? There's no way.

MADDOX: No, not sticking or putting an officer with, at each site. SMITH: At each site.

QUESTION: Are you all actively investigating any (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

MADDOX: No, there are no active cases here that we are working on.

QUESTION: Do you know if the number...

MADDOX: Even...

QUESTION: .... people hospitalized has changed since yesterday?

MADDOX: We haven't had an update on that. I mean those figures there are what were there last night.

QUESTION: Eight people confirmed with burns.

SMITH: Right. Yes, burns and respiratory.

MADDOX: Burns and respiratory ailments.

SMITH: There was a question asked by someone about eBay.

QUESTION: Yes, this time on eBay there was some...

SMITH: Well, we had heard that some of this had been, some of the debris or souvenirs from this incident had been reported to have been on eBay, but then we've also heard that it's been...

MADDOX: It's been removed.

SMITH: ... removed by eBay. It would be...

QUESTION: Well, your comment on that, what's your sense? I mean you're here on the ground...

SMITH: My sentiment on that is they're stupid to do something...

MADDOX: Extremely disappointed.

SMITH: ... to do something like that.

QUESTION: Are the people who are in the hospital, are they doing, have they remained hospitalized or have they been treated and released?

MADDOX: Do not know. We just know there that they were taken in and treated for that.

SMITH: See, they were in St. Augustine County.

QUESTION: OK.

SMITH: So that's another county. MADDOX: Also, Nacogdoches and Angelina County.

SMITH: Right.

QUESTION: Are you all still getting calls from people saying that they have now found debris (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

MADDOX: Oh, yes.

SMITH: Yes.

MADDOX: I mean that would go, I mean the phones are continuing ringing around the clock.

SMITH: We've had to, you know, have several other dispatchers put on to help with it.

QUESTION: It sounds like you're finding debris at a slower rate than you were. Is that safe to say?

MADDOX: No, that's not safe to say.

QUESTION: But you went from 130 sites yesterday to 150 to 160 today. I mean have you gotten to all the easy ones and now are some of...

MADDOX: Well, you have take into consideration the terrain that they are having to get into today. It's a lot rougher terrain now than it was yesterday.

And some of these sites, you know, when, even though that the numbers, you know, are not as high, you know, there's lots, you know, a lot of debris has been discovered in them. And that's just one site. It's not counted as each individual article. It's a site.

QUESTION: I'm wondering where you see this search going qualitatively if yesterday you were depending mostly on phone calls from people and today you've done the fanning out. What happens tomorrow and the next day and the next day?

SMITH: Well, we're hoping that we can get some more aerial support. But, you know, we have a, we're under a no fly zone here so it takes a little time to get some of that stuff removed.

QUESTION: How would the aerial support help, though, if you're looking for, if what you're finding are smaller pieces?

SMITH: Well, we can at least tell which, what the path is around in the tree areas. And we're using some aircraft now.

QUESTION: Is there a path right now that you can tell us? Is there some kind of distinct path at all?

MADDOX: Yes, I, you know, and when we have located these sites, you know, this was all plugged into a computer and it went with the radar images there that, it went along perfectly there with the radar images there that we first had when the shuttle there did break up.

SMITH: You had the Weather Service's radar image of the plume when it occurred. It's really exactly right on. The Weather Service did an excellent job in providing that for us.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the path...

(CROSSTALK)

SMITH: Yes...

MADDOX: It went from northwest to southeast.

SMITH: Yes, and you can go to the Weather Service's site in Lake Charles and they still have it on their Web site and it's interesting.

QUESTION: That 150 sites, is that total or is that just today?

SMITH: No, that's total.

MADDOX: That's total.

QUESTION: Now, you can you describe for us the areas? Are they like box market roads or just wooded areas?

MADDOX: A combination of all of them, dirt roads, logging roads, highways, side of the highways, front and back yards, pasture land and even into the forest land.

QUESTION: Is there a landmark along the reservoir where you can tell from where the witnesses saw the car shaped piece go in? I mean is it closer to the dam or is it further north?

MADDOX: That, all we know is that it's in Newton County. They do have GPS coordinates on that but we don't have, we don't know what those are.

QUESTION: Can you comment on the emotional state of the people who are going out and doing this searching today? What's the sense?

SMITH: Well, it's emotional for everyone because, you know, all of us have an involvement in the space program as well as in our fellowman. And any time something like this occurs and you get all these people working together, you know, it becomes emotional.

QUESTION: What time is the next briefing?

MADDOX: Probably around 6:00.

QUESTION: Sheriff, would you tell us your name and spell it please?

MADDOX: Yes. It's Maddox, M-A-D-D-O-X.

QUESTION: Could you spell your name, your first name?

MADDOX: Tom, T-O-M.

QUESTION: And you're sheriff of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) County?

MADDOX: No, I'm the sheriff of Sabine County.

QUESTION: Oh, Sabine County. Sorry.

QUESTION: Sorry about that.

SMITH: And we'll come back at 6:00 and give you another briefing. Thank you.

MADDOX: Appreciate it. We've got to get back to the command post. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: We've been listening to Sheriff Tommy Maddox, Sabine County, Texas, briefing reports there. That's another one of the places across this part of the world that is dealing with a fair amount of debris which rained down as the space shuttle Columbia came over and broke up in mid-flight, a mid-flight break-up unprecedented in the history of aviation or space travel.

It's time for us to take a break. When we return, we're going to check in with an expert, a man who was one of the lead engineers in the shuttle program during the era of Challenger, before and after. We'll ask him to give us a good explanation about some of these tiles and blankets and what is reinforced carbon-carbon anyway?

We'll answer that question in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) * O'BRIEN: A space shuttle is coated with about 20,000 separate insulating tiles. They're ceramic and their primary constituent, believe it or not, is sand. They're very light to pick up. They're not very dense. And when they come out of a kiln that is some 2,200 degrees, they can be picked up only seconds after they come out of that kiln. That's how quickly they shed heat. It's a rather intricate way of protecting the aluminum frame of a space shuttle, which can only withstand about 300 degrees in temperature from the 3,000 degrees that it encounters when a space shuttle returns from space back to earth.

Let's get a little more of an explanation on all of this and we'll talk about some of the ways that a space shuttle is protected from melting and breaking up, as we just saw yesterday.

For that we turn to Renay San Miguel -- Renay.

RENAY SAN MIGUEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Miles, NASA will, indeed, be taking a close look at the tiles that shield the shuttle from that intense heat during reentry because of something that happened during its launch on January 16th.

Joining us now, former NASA engineer, former shuttle engineer, Randy Avera. He has actually a piece of the tile from Columbia. But before we get into that, we want to show you some animation that we've worked up here involving the launch on January 16th.

There you see supposedly a piece of foam insulation from the orbiter booster rocket, the big red rocket there that you see in the middle, fell off during the flight. You will see it falling off shortly, just as the camera zooms in on the shuttle. We'll wait for that to happen. It's coming up here shortly.

But, Randy, what would that foam insulation be used for on the flight?

RANDY AVERA, AUTHOR, "TRUTH ABOUT CHALLENGER": Well, that's, according to NASA, what came off as a piece of insulation from the external tank, that orange colored tank. And this is insulation that keeps the cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen cold.

SAN MIGUEL: OK, so would that piece of insulation -- we don't know how big it may have been, we don't know how fast, you know, accurately, how fast it was moving. But could that, indeed, do enough damage to the tiles? Could it have knocked tiles off the under belly of the shuttle?

AVERA: Well, the insulation itself is lightweight but it would be moving at a relatively fast speed, depending upon the seconds during boost to orbit. But, importantly so, the tile itself is a very lightweight ceramic coating, this black coating. This is a high temperature tile that came off the rear end of Columbia on a...

SAN MIGUEL: That was actually on Columbia's maiden voyage, STS1, I believe.

AVERA: Yes, STS1. And this is a scrap tile but you can see the black ceramic glass coating. And on the bottom it's like a chalk. I can take my fingernail and prick a chalk like material from the bottom.

SAN MIGUEL: You're actually bringing dust off of it right now as we speak.

AVERA: Correct. And there's a felt, kind of like on a pool table, that's glued to this tile and then glue is added on the other side of that felt and the entire assembly is bonded or glued to the belly of the orbiters' aluminum skin.

SAN MIGUEL: That tile that you're looking at right -- that we're looking at right here is 22 years old. That launch of STS1 was on April 12,1981. Have there been any changes in this particular type of tile, the, you know, the structure, the composition, the design, anything at all since then?

AVERA: To my knowledge no change. The system is essentially the same. There are fewer tiles than there have been in the past. But that's as an evolution of the knowledge of the temperature distribution on the orbiter.

SAN MIGUEL: OK.

AVERA: But the black tiles are essentially the same as they were on STS1.

SAN MIGUEL: And talk about this one. This is a scrap tile from what I understand. It was taken off because it sustained a little damage. Show the camera here some of the pock marks that we see right here. That would be enough to compromise the structure of this particular tile. You would not want to, at that time you would not want to put, you know, go back into space with this particular tile still on the shuttle.

AVERA: In 1981, it was a new program and what NASA later developed were standard repairs to tiles. So tiles were rejected in the early days for minor damage or various other reasons. But as the years went on flying, they found that minor repairs could be locally repaired, but there's a limit to how many of those you could have on one particular tile.

SAN MIGUEL: Talk about the, is it reinforced carbon-carbon? Is that the surface that we're looking at right here that's on the front?

AVERA: No, this is a high temperature aluminum and silica tile.

SAN MIGUEL: OK.

AVERA: It's alumino-silicate, that white material. The reinforced carbon-carbon is the gray leading edge, that curved leading edge of the space shuttle orbiter.

SAN MIGUEL: OK.

AVERA: And it's also up on the very tip of the nose cap.

SAN MIGUEL: OK, so the gray areas that we're seeing right there where you see that RCC.

AVERA: Yes, the gray is the very highest temperature insulation, 2,850 degrees, and the black tiles are somewhat less than that, but of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

SAN MIGUEL: I understand Miles O'Brien has some questions for you, as well -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, yes, my question, Renay and Randy, is on that reinforced carbon-carbon, we talked a lot about how fragile those tiles are, but the reinforced carbon-carbon, if, in fact, that piece of debris struck it, Randy, what's your assessment of how it would fail? Is it apt to be very brittle? Would it kind of break open like you'd be familiar with a lot of composites like fiberglass or whatever?

AVERA: Yes. If you look at the black ceramic glass coating, it's extremely thin. It's millimeters thin. I could take my fingernail and put it right up under the edge of some of this black coating and actually break it off, as you see in my hand there. Now the reason I was able to break that away, it was already a crack on the edge of that tile. And typically the tile does not have that superficial or minor damage. But it is, in fact, a very thin black ceramic coating of glass.

SAN MIGUEL: OK. I mean it's amazing to me that you actually have a piece of tile from the shuttle Columbia, which we're talking about here, which, you know, it's from its maiden voyage and, of course, everybody saw the final flight yesterday.

Randy Avera, shuttle engineer, thank you for joining us.

We appreciate your time.

AVERA: You're welcome.

SAN MIGUEL: Coming up next, we will hear from Mike Brooks, who is at Barksdale Air Force Base.

We will have more of our Coverage Columbia: A Shuttle Tragedy, right after this. Please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back.

I'm Miles O'Brien live at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

This is one of the key nexus points for NASA as it conducts its investigation into what went wrong on the space shuttle Columbia yesterday as it streaked toward a landing at the Kennedy Space Center, a landing that never happened. Another place where things are a center of activity is Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where many of those pieces we've seen that rained down over hundreds and hundreds of miles of Texas and Louisiana and other states are slowly but surely going to be gathered, although that really hasn't begun just yet.

Our Mike Brooks is there at Barksdale -- hello, Mike.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Miles.

That's correct. Right now there has been no evidence or any of the debris brought here as of yet. But then again FEMA and NASA are in no hurry. They want to make sure that they document exactly where all the debris was located, take pictures of it, use global positioning devices to say exactly and pinpoint exactly where those pieces were to better help NASA investigators find out exactly why this tragedy occurred -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, Mike, do you have any sense of the timetable here as to when we might see things start moving in that direction? You know, it seems as if this is going to take a tremendous amount of manpower to just keep everything preserved in the fields.

BROOKS: Right. That's correct, and we've just heard from two law enforcement officials there, Miles, that they don't have the manpower to do that. And that's why FEMA is the main coordinating agency for actually finding, searching and securing the evidence. And NASA is the main agency for the investigation and the recovery of that.

Now, NASA, I spoke with them earlier, and they basically said that evidence recovery is kind of foreign to us. So that's why FEMA is assisting NASA with other law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, the NTSB, who do this for a living. And they will be assisting on both debris and body recovery parts. And after they get the debris, they will load it on trucks, it will be escorted and bring it here, to Barksdale.

Some people have asked why Barksdale? Well, the main, two of the main reasons is Barksdale is a B-52 base so they have large hangars such as those you see behind me, along with some of the antique aircraft you see here. But the large hangars can accommodate all the debris that they're going to get. And they'll lay this out and attempt to piece together the puzzle.

The other reason is Barksdale is the largest air force base, the largest military base in this line of the debris. It's almost a 300 mile line where all this debris has fallen. So Barksdale seems to be the place to do that. And security here is also very, very tight -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: What, now, Mike, it's worth reminding folks that there are -- that we've heard all kinds of reports today about people who, despite all our efforts to tell them not to, have picked up these pieces. It's got little traces of mono-methylhydrazine or some nasty substance like that on it. And sure enough, they get burned.

Now, that should be enough to get people not to pick it up, but also we should point out that this is very crucial to a very important investigation. But we don't really have a sense that the authorities there know how to treat it any better and pick it up without hurting themselves.

BROOKS: No, and it has to be pointed out that if you pick this up, you're not only going to hurt yourself because of all the toxic materials, it's against the law. There have been, we had a report from eBay that these things were starting to appear on eBay already. You know, if -- number one, it's against the law. And secondly, you know, the ghoulish curiosity of some people just is way out there, Miles.

And we also want to remind people that if you do find something, no matter how small it is, to let the authorities know. You can let your local law enforcement or police know, but there's also a number I'd like to remind people they can call. It's at the Johnson Space Center, emergency operations center. And that number again is area code 281-483-3388. You call them, they will be able to pinpoint exactly where that is and send someone to pick up this. And, again, it's against the law, it's toxic and it can be a danger to themselves -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Put it on eBay, you might be bidding for a jail cell.

All right, Mike Brooks, thanks very much for being with us from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. We appreciate it.

Let's continue our discussion of the debris field, hundreds and hundreds of pieces, perhaps thousands. It's clear that it is such a wide debris field and it is, in many cases, so sparsely populated it's very unlikely that every last piece will be recovered. It's also rather surprising to a lot of observers that nobody was hurt or killed by that debris as it plummeted to earth.

Let's get more on all of this from David Mattingly, joining us from Nacogdoches, Texas.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Miles.

We're actually starting to see what could be some frustration on the part of some local officials here. They've been waiting all day to hear from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency with some sort of plan on when the massive amount of debris here is going to start being picked up.

Now, the county wants to know, they have a massive amount of debris to deal with and the last count was 1,200 individual sites in this county and that is still counting. They're still getting 25 calls an hour with new sites being reported.

Some of these include county schools. We saw teens with global positioning devices out at county schools today. They were looking for pieces of the shuttle and they were marking the places that they were finding them. And as long as those are on site at schools, they're wondering if they should have school tomorrow. In fact, at this point, those schools in question they have not been cleared to be open tomorrow. So they have that decision to make, plus the fact that the county sheriff is spread so thin right now with his deputies out trying to keep track of all these sites, that they're wondering openly now when they're going to get some relief.

And they've got a lot of work to do still. You can look back here in the corner and you can see that wooded area over there. This part of east Texas, there is a lot of heavy woods. And the sheriff is talking about bringing in helicopters, deputies on horseback, also people on four wheel vehicles to get into the remote areas and look for more debris. So there's a lot of stuff out there that they think they haven't even found yet.

So in some ways this search is just beginning -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: David, has there been any talk about calling in some National Guard troops for help?

MATTINGLY: There has been a National Guard presence here today. There have been some that came in yesterday. They've been held over today. But still, when you talk about over a thousand individual sites, there's just no way that the manpower here can keep up with that.

So what they're doing, they're relying on NASA to tell them what's important and what NASA needs for them to prioritize and keep an eye on most diligently and just maybe let the others go for the time being. So right now they're waiting for that relief to come in.

O'BRIEN: A space agency with a rather full plate right now. And this is forcing people to be a lot more patient than they might have anticipated.

David Mattingly in Nacogdoches, Texas, thanks very much.

We're going to take a break. When we return, we'll check in with John Zarrella at the Kennedy Space Center. That's where Columbia should have been today, in the hangar, getting read for another mission. Not so.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: The entire NASA family in mourning today and that is felt here at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It's felt at all the NASA centers, for that matter.

Perhaps just as poignantly as anywhere else at the Kennedy Space Center, where Columbia 17 days ago left on its science mission.

That's where we find CNN's John Zarrella -- hello, John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Miles.

You know, NASA's got a couple of things they're dealing with simultaneously here. Certainly, this great tragedy, recovering the debris and the investigation. But at the same time they have other issues. Immediately downstream, of course, is the shuttle Atlantis. And to my right here is the vehicle assembly building and in the vehicle assembly building, the shuttle Atlantis is stacked. It was expected to be rolled out this coming week and a March 1 target to liftoff on a mission that would take it to the international space station to change out crews.

That is obviously not likely in the least to happen. So NASA has to decide what do you do? Do you leave it mated. Do you detach -- do you demate the vehicle? It was ready to go.

And, of course, the international space station question. You have to get up there. A resupply ship from Russia is on its way there now, a Progress, to resupply the crew that's up there. They can stay up on the international space station until June. It looks like that would be the optimum time.

But, of course, that leads to the longer range questions. We talked to Admiral Dick Truly earlier today and Admiral Truly shepherded the space program through the days and most after the Challenger accident. He was the administrator. And Admiral Truly told us that, in fact, it would be more difficult now and more pressing to fly than it was back then, because of the pressures, the international pressures that exist.

If we can hear from Dick Truly. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it was an awful day and it's one that we'll never forget. But one of the things about the nation is that we don't shrink around, we don't shrink from challenges like this and I don't think we'll shrink from this one. We're going to go flying again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZARRELLA: I talked a little while ago with Congressman Dave Weldon, a local congressman here, and talking again about the future. Do you build a fourth orbiter or do you go with the three existing orbiters and press onward to build a next generation space vehicle?

And Congressman Weldon's feeling was that that's where he would be, not to build another replacement orbiter, as Ronald Reagan and the Congress did after the Challenger accident, but to move forward and step up the pace for a next generation vehicle.

And those are the kinds of debates that are going to be long and hard in Washington over dollars, how to do it, what to do, is the community ready to go for that kind of a next generation space vehicle that will move us into the 21st century or do you just fly shuttles and another replacement for the next 20 years?

Clearly, the three shuttles that exist will be flying again. They have to because of the need to get up to the space station and the shuttle being such an integral part of that process.

Now, besides what's going on here and at the NASA offices and headquarters and out in Texas, the folks out at the visitors center here, lots of people have been coming to pay their respects. It is a big weekend, as always, big weekends out at the visitors center.

And that's where we find CNN's Gary Tuchman.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, John.

We are eyewitnesses to an overwhelming display of sadness and sorrow here at the visitors center at the Kennedy Space Center. Thousands of people have turned out to pay their respects. You can see right now, this is a line of about 75 people and it's been constant all day, people who are going in this direction to this table to sign condolence books that have been placed there.

Miss, can I ask you a quick question?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sure.

TUCHMAN: Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Merritt Island, Florida.

TUCHMAN: Merritt Island, Florida, which is near here.

Tell me what made you decide to come out here today?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We just wanted to come out and pay our respects to the people that lost their lives.

TUCHMAN: When you sign the book, which you'll do in about three seconds, what are you going to write in the book?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just our hearts and prayers are the with the families of those that were affected by this tragedy.

TUCHMAN: Thanks for talking with us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

TUCHMAN: Right next to us is the memorial wall. This is the astronaut memorial wall with all the names of the U.S. astronauts who've died in service of their country. Ten names of people who died in the Challenger disaster, in the launch pad fire back in 1967, seven names from people who died on test flights before they ever got into space. And what you can see when you walk a little closer there, on the bottom of the memorial wall is a picture, a picture of the seven Columbia astronauts who lost their lives yesterday. Their names will soon be on this wall, too. And in front when this day started, there were very few flowers here. Now you can see flowers, you can see flags, you can see signs like this one right here. This one says, "To Columbia's heroes and their families, you're in our hearts and prayers always." And it's signed by a family of six people.

Lots of people who have come here today are people who were here yesterday hoping to see the landing of the space shuttle Columbia. It's been a very sad visit for those people who were here yesterday for that and are now here today for this -- back to you.

ZARRELLA: So we are back, of course, here at the Kennedy Space Center. And we expect that those tributes are going to continue to grow throughout the days and certainly the weeks ahead. We know that here at the Kennedy Space Center there will be a planned tribute later in the week. Perhaps they haven't set the dates for a public memorial, but those are the kinds of things that we will likely be seeing across all of the NASA centers in the days and weeks to come.

So from now from the Kennedy Space Center, back to you -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Hey, John, a quick question. You were talking about, you know, the possibly of a replacement orbiter or taking that same amount of money and putting it toward a next generation. Last I checked, the price tag for an orbiter was about $2 billion. Did you get the sense from talking to Congressman Weldon that there is the will in Congress to put that kind of money up for the space program?

ZARRELLA: That's the question. He says it's going to be a very hard and very difficult debate and he wonders if it's going to be $2 billion if in 2003 dollars it may be more than that. And his feeling is take some of the monies and continue to upgrade the three existing orbiters and then put all of your dollars, your real hard dollars, the big bucks you need, into a next generation vehicle.

But he admitted that any road that they take is going to be difficult in these economic times -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Of course, $2 billion would probably just be starters if you're talking about a whole new generation of vehicles.

ZARRELLA: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: CNN's John Zarrella at Kennedy Space Center.

Thanks very much for those insights.

We're going to take a break. We'll be back with more in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back.

I'm Miles O'Brien live at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.

Austin, Texas is the dateline where we will be taking you very shortly. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, will be holding a news conference in just a little bit. He'll be talking about the efforts to recover debris which is strewn across much of the Lone Star State.

We'll bring that to you. 4:00 p.m. Eastern time is the anticipated start. We'll bring it to you whenever it begins.

We were talking a little bit with John Zarrella about the impending and inevitable debate about what next for the manned space flight program. What will NASA do? Will there be another space shuttle orbiter built or will the money be put to other uses or will there be no additional money for NASA because there simply isn't the money there?

Let's check in with somebody who has his hands very close to the purse strings for NASA, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of Utica, New York, who is on the House Subcommittee on Science and Technology, the chairman of that committee.

Congressman Boehlert, good to have you with us.

REP. SHERWOOD BOEHLERT (R-NY), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE SCIENCE COMMITTEE: It's good to be with you this afternoon.

O'BRIEN: What, let's talk about what next for manned space flight. Inevitably there will be hearings in front of your committee to talk about what happened and what next. Let's talk about the what next. What do you see as the logical next step, even as this investigation just gets under way?

BOEHLERT: Well, first of all, we can't jump to any hasty conclusions and we've got to determine whether policies that are existing led to the demise of the shuttle or what steps we should take to prevent that in the future. But we'll have an inquiry in the House. The Senate will have a similar inquiry. We have the internal and external panels inquiring and so we're going to have a lot of questions that have to be answered.

But as we go forward, we're going forward knowing that first and foremost in everybody's mind is safety, and satisfy has not been compromised. As a matter of fact, Congress has consistently driven the issue once again repeating every time witnesses from NASA have come before us, we've always focused on safety. And, quite frankly, from the other side, they, too, have focused on safety.

I noticed...

O'BRIEN: But the other...

BOEHLERT: The NASA...

O'BRIEN: The other side of that is that you'll...

BOEHLERT: The NASA say...

O'BRIEN: You'll hear a lot of people at NASA say that Congress over the years has been a bit parsimonious when it comes to NASA's request to spend some real money upgrading that space shuttle fleet so it's good to last as long as it has lasted. It wasn't supposed to fly as many years as it has and the money to keep it flying maybe hasn't been there, has it?

BOEHLERT: Well, yes it has, as a matter of fact. Keep in mind that Columbia was geared for 100 missions. It was flying its 28th mission. The mission before last it was in for a complete overhaul. It was actually disassembled part by part, checked very thoroughly -- the electrical systems, the structural systems -- and then reassembled. So, and Congress has constantly emphasized the importance of safety.

I'm reading here from a hearing last February we had when I directly asked the administrator, "Can you give this committee assurance that this is not going to compromise safety?" That is, they were talking about cutting some of the money for the shuttle upgrade. And his response was, "Yes, sir, absolutely. By all means."

There has been very limited suggestion, if any, that safety has been compromised. Even the NASA safety panel, the chairman of that said the concern is not for the present flight or the next one or even the one after that. The concern is long range, the anticipated deterioration because of the technology.

But we're not talking about existing or immediately future meetings, we're talking about long range. And as we deal with the shuttle upgrade, some of the delays in the shuttle upgrade have been as a result of management, as a result of going back to the drawing board to try to perfect something that's proposed.

But there's been no suggestion from any quarter that compromise on this mission was, safety on this mission was compromised in any way.

O'BRIEN: Well, let me ask you this, Congressman Boehlert, is it high time -- and obviously what comes out of this will have some bearing on how this debate is shaped -- but isn't it high time to think about a new generation of some kind of space vehicles to carry human beings to space? And NASA doesn't have a very good track record coming up with ideas in this regard. We have to tell it like it is in that respect. But do you think out of the ashes of Columbia there will be some new initiative, a reasonable initiative to come up with a new vehicle?

BOEHLERT: I do. I think the next generation vehicle has to be proposed, but they've got to be very specific on what they're proposing and what the costs are projected to be. And then we've got to make some really hard policy decisions. Should we continue with human space exploration as we're now doing it? Some would argue that you can have space exploration with robots, with machines. You don't need people in space. I don't happen to share that point of view, but there are some people who make that argument.

The fact of the matter is we have a new administrator of NASA, just on the job a little more than a year. NASA has always had very high marks in terms of technological competence. It's been somewhat questionable and spotty in terms of financial management. We have a new guy on the job and he has a good track record in the past in his previous jobs and we're hoping that he can get the culture changed so that the financial management will match the technical competence.

But I have a very great confidence in the long range future of the space program and the great benefit it brings not just to the United States, but to all mankind.

O'BRIEN: Just briefly, do you think they'll have to at least temporarily abandon the space station?

BOEHLERT: No, no. The space station won't be abandoned. We have three astronauts up there right now. They're safe until at least June. We have a means for getting them out of the space station. As a matter of fact, the space station could essentially operate for a time on automatic pilot without anyone operating it, but we don't foresee that need at this juncture.

But no one knows. The shuttle program is now abandoned, but our international partners, the Russians, have sent up the Soyuz to resupply that station. But I'm led to believe that the resupplying will last the astronauts about to June. Then they're going to have to come back to earth because of the long time they've been up there suspended in space and the impact on them.

So we'll get them back and there's no indication that they're in jeopardy.

O'BRIEN: Representative Sherwood Boehlert, who is the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, joining us live from Utica, New York.

Thank you very much for being with us, sir.

BOEHLERT: Thank you.

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