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Do We Need to Rethink Goals of Space Exploration?

Aired February 3, 2003 - 09:05   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: More now to our top story again, the investigation of the Columbia disaster. Investigators are looking closely at the sudden rise in temperature the shuttle experienced just minutes before it broke apart over Texas.
Rusty Dornin is at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She joins us now with the very latest.

Good morning, Rusty.

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, you know, they're assembling those bits and pieces from the massive amount of computer data and files here at mission control in Houston. And what they're saying now is that it was a thermal problem, not a structural problem, that caused the breakup of the shuttle.

Now what happened initially was there was an uneven heating process that occurred on the left side of the shuttle. That triggered drag on the shuttle, which caused the automatic pilot to order the spacecraft to bank to the right. It was right after that they lost communication with the shuttle.

Now earlier this morning, AMERICAN MORNING spoke with Sean O'Keefe, NASA administrator, who said that before liftoff, all systems were A-OK.


SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: No flight takes off unless there is a certification of every single issue that could possibly compromise safety of flight, and so we guarantee that each and every time, and that -- this flight was no different. There was no anomalies no, objections across the board, and as a result, all factors were -- on the ground and examined before we ever launched.


DORNIN: Now the bigamy mystery for NASA now is there is apparently 32 seconds of information that they are trying to retrieve after they lost communication with the shuttle. That could give very important indicators of what happened after this incredible increase in temperature.

And Sean O'Keefe will be meeting with President Bush today, and then will brief members of Congress, and of course, President Bush is coming to Houston tomorrow for the memorial -- Paula. ZAHN: Thank you. What are they telling you about how long they think this investigation is going to take? I know yesterday they said we should be prepared for conclusions, early conclusions to change, that the information is JUST so fluid. What's the expectation?

DORNIN: I don't think there are any expectations now. I mean, they talked about the fact that they may be contradicting themselves from day to day, as this massive amounts of information is gone through and they begin to piece together this puzzle. Of course, they're also trying to piece together the puzzle of the debris, and how that figures into it, because that also will give them indications of what really happened here. So again, it still could be weeks and months, although they seem to be forthcoming with information, more than you might imagine, about what they are finding, sort of theorizing as they go with what might have happened.

ZAHN: Rusty Dornin, thanks for the update. Appreciate it.

The loss of Columbia and its seven astronauts left many wondering whether the benefits of space travel are actually worth the risk. Do we need to rethink the goals of space exploration?

Alan Ladwig, is a former NASA administrator of policy and planning. He joins us from Washington to talk about what lies ahead for the agency.

Welcome, good to have you with us this morning, Al.


ZAHN: You heard Rusty just report that Sean O'Keefe is headed to the White House and also the halls of Congress to brief all those folks on what went so horribly wrong on Saturday, and then apparently to make some pitch for more support for the NASA funding picture.

What do you think will be the long-term consequences of the Columbia disaster?

LADWIG: Well, I this think it's going to cause a rethinking on the scale and scheduling for replacements of the shuttle. NASA had something called the space launch initiative, which was a $4.5 billion program over five years to come up with new vehicle designed replace the shuttle. They hope to come up with that design by about 2006, I believe, with a new vehicle around 2010, 2012.

They now because of budget cuts have had to desculpt that. They are going to focus on what they call the orbital space plane, which a vehicle just to carry humans into orbit, so that we could get people up to the space station. It would have limited cargo capability, and it would be launched on the top of expendable launch vehicle, such as the Delta IV or an Atlas V. So whether or not that schedule be speeded up is something that ought to be looked at, because otherwise, they still have to rely on shuttle. The other part of the desculpting of the space launch initiative was to continue shuttle upgrades and fly the shuttle until 2020. And now with only three orbiters and flying to 2020 doesn't seem to be to be the most optimum way that we're going to take advantage of the -- of what we can could do in space.

ZAHN: I'm just curious what you think is possible, because the president unveiled his budget earlier today. There is about a 3 percent increase in NASA's budget picture over fiscal 2003. Is that enough to get this orbital space plane program moving?

LADWIG: I can't really answer that without talking to some folks at NASA about what their funding profile was going to be and what their development phasing was going to be.

I can say that NASA has been somewhat underfunded over the past decade. The budget had been either declining or fairly steady, didn't keep up with inflation.

And we asked NASA to do an awful lot for us in the space program, and it becomes a question, how much can they do with limited resources?

I mean, the good news is, there is so much we can do in space, we've come so far in 40 years. On the other hand, we now -- do we have a budget that keeps up with all of the different capabilities? And might we even start to think about, is there a new way to organize the government space program? Also, what is the appropriate role for the private sector in the future?

I'm in the space tourism business, and I, for one, want to know what the plans are with the orbital space plane. Will my company have access to that so we can fly people, because we know there is a market there. And then you see things like the X Prize (ph). That is encouraging the private sector to build suborbital vehicles, and we think within 12 to 16 months there could be demonstrations of those vehicles for suborbital flights. And a Futron study identified that 15,000 people per year would pay $90,000 to fly on a suborbital flight.

So there is wide opportunities ahead,and what we want to make sure of is that we have a space program that allows all of these great capabilities to take place.

ZAHN: Finally, this morning, Senator Bill Nelson was a guest on our show who flew on the Columbia back in 1986, as a then Congressman. He has been very critical not only of the Bush administration, but the Clinton administration, for not funding NASA more lavishly.

But he made the point today, he still does not believe that the budget cuts compromised the safety of the space program, particularly since early clues point to a thermal, rather than structural problem.

Do you agree with his conclusions so far? Or do you agree with a panel of NASA experts that were recently fired by NASA, that said indeed the budget cuts were hurting the safety of the shuttle program?

LADWIG: I'm not sure they were fired by NASA. Their terms of serving on those committees may have expired, and perhaps they weren't reappointed.

ZAHN: According to "The New York Times" they were fired, this morning, but we're looking into that.

LADWIG: I would want to check that out.

But in any case, you know, safety has been -- certainly since the Challenger accident, safety is on everybody's mind, nobody wanted a repeat of that tragic activity. You have these panels, they tell you their views on safety. And at some point, in the way things are managed, in the way the political process operates between White House, Office of Management Budget, Congress, it's all taking place in dynamic environment where tradeoffs are made.

Now we may well find that we made wrong tradeoffs over past several years, and that's what these various investigative committees will look into in the future.

ZAHN: Alan Ladwig, former NASA department administrator, thank you for your expertise this morning. Appreciate your time.

LADWIG: Thank you.


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