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How Should Space Program Proceed?

Aired February 4, 2003 - 14:21   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: It says a lot about the United States and a lot about the universal wonderment of space travel that much of the world has reacted with such shock and sorrow over the tragedy. That sorrow is especially acute, of course, in Israel, where they are mourning a hero of their own, Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space.
CNN's Kelly Wallace joins us live from Jerusalem -- Kelly, good afternoon.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, it is a cold and rainy night here in Jerusalem. Matches the mood of this country over the past few days. Not a lot of people at this cafe tonight. Many Israelis, though, likely watching the memorial service at home on television. All of Israel's television stations broadcasting the service live. We came here, though, to talk to Israelis to get a sense of what kind of blow this tragedy has been for this country's spirit.

I'm joined by a group of university students here. Lita (ph), let me begin with you. What did Colonel Ramon represent for Israel?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that he was a symbol in many ways. I think that he was more than just a messenger that was brought to space. He was just the first Jewish -- the first Jew in space. Let's start with that. Second of all, he was the first Israeli in space.

So I think it represented some of our hopes and dreams to become developed and to be more open to the world, and I think it was a great loss for Israel, not only for his family that I feel very bad for them, for Rona and the kids. And I personally felt that it was a tragedy. I mean, I never met him, of course. But I think it's just terrible.

WALLACE: OK. We're going to have to unfortunately leave it there. But certainly a difficult tragedy, especially after this country has been dealing with violence for the past two years and a devastating economy as well.

Let me go now to Judy Woodruff -- Judy, to you.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Kelly. We know they are feeling it whether they knew Ilan Ramon personally or not.

Another of the astronauts, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, was an American citizen, but she was a native of India. People there were celebrating her latest space flight. She had made another one a few years ago. They were celebrating her return. Excitement and pride, though, we know now, quickly turned to shock and to grief. Now they are paying tribute to Kalpana Chawla with days of mourning as they remember a woman who symbolized hope for all those with a dream.


SANJAY CHAWLA, BROTHER OF KALPANA CHAWLA: I would like her to be known for having achieved the impossible. Saying is something, practically achieving it is what I would like her to be known for.


WOODRUFF: Chawla's family remembering her best of all. Miles, to you.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you very much, Judy. I said a few moments ago that this is probably not the day to get into a serious debate about the future of space exploration, but President Bush did vow that space exploration in this country will continue.

And it is on people's minds, certainly here, at all the NASA centers, and really all across the nation.

Joining us to talk a little bit about that is Lori Garver, a former associate administrator for NASA and currently an aerospace consultant. Lori, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: First of all, I assume you had a chance to at least watch it on television. I know you're watching from afar. Did the president, did the speakers hit the right notes?

GARVER: Absolutely. I think it's gratifying to see the nation coming together in support of the future of the space program. That is what these astronauts were risking their lives for, and I think for all of us in the space community, it's tremendously emotional, but gratifying to see our leadership in President Bush pledging to move on.

O'BRIEN: It comes at a time when there was so much talk about tourists in space, civilians in space. You, yourself, had an effort underway to try to find your way to space aboard a Soyuz -- a Russian Soyuz capsule, and couple that with the fact that NASA was ready, 17 years after Challenger, finally to fly teachers once again on a regular basis. Does all that now go to the side as NASA focuses on just flying safe missions?

GARVER: Well, I think certainly in the short term that is the case. The Russians have already announced they will most likely not be flying tourists in the near future. The vital asset of the Soyuz up and down to the space station will need to be utilized by the international parties and agencies involved in the space station.

But over the long term, I think, again, because the nation's leadership is already recommitting ourselves to the future of human space travel, that future is still bright. The -- it's up to the American people now to decide, and our leadership, where they want NASA to focus those resources on human space flight, but the discussion will certainly take place.

O'BRIEN: Well, you've been inside NASA and you know what it's like trying to get the resources out of Congress. Ultimately, the American people. NASA, oftentimes, has a hard sell on its hands because it is the ultimate in discretionary spending, after all.

Is it time to make a bigger commitment? In other words, sort of a fork in the road? Either close up shop or make a bigger commitment?

GARVER: Well, you know, it's a challenge, but it's also one of those things that the government does best. The space program is something that we can all look to and be proud of for our country, and I think that's what we're seeing these last few days. It's a time to recommit -- to recommit ourselves. The $15 billion NASA budget is a significant amount to do wonderful things in space that we've seen, but we shouldn't be penny-wise with our space program, and if an outcome can be positive from this, that would certainly be one of them.

O'BRIEN: Do you have the sense at all that there is any linkage between that penny-wise approach, and what we witnessed on Saturday?

GARVER: I don't. It is my sense that space is risky. We do great things at a risk, and we all in the space program are well aware of those risks. It was like our family went every time they went to space, and we did our best and would never launch if we did not think that something was safe. I believe that continues to be the case at NASA, and this was an accident that we will find out what exactly happened, fix it, and move on.

O'BRIEN: And what -- can you give us some specificity on how to move on? Is it time to build another orbiter? Is it time to spend that money on improving the shuttle fleet, or is it time to move on to a whole new vehicle?

GARVER: I don't believe we will build another orbiter like the space shuttle because we no longer even have the ability to do that. We have three existing vehicles which hopefully can continue to fly safely to and from the space station to continue to build the space station to its full assembly complete.

Beyond that, yes, I do believe that we should build an additional future vehicle for the transport of humans and cargo to and from space, and we've already got funding for some of those programs in the budget. That's a debate the country and the leadership and NASA need to have is, can we facilitate building those replacement vehicles faster, and to make sure that they are safer and less expensive than the current space transportation system. Ultimately, we knew that had to happen, but, yes, it could happen sooner.

O'BRIEN: When you talk about that, you're talking about many billions of dollars and many years. Is it safe to fly the shuttle fleet, do you think, in the interim? GARVER: It's too early to say, based on what we know of the accident. But I believe that we can make the shuttle safe again, and continue to fly it at some rate until we have a replacement. Now, the shuttle budget itself is several billion dollars a year, and so, yes, these are not small amounts of money, but what we're doing is incredibly important to the long term future of humanity, and we have a space station up, and we need to continue this momentum to have humans explore and expand into space.

O'BRIEN: Lori Garver, a former associate administrator of NASA, now an aerospace consultant. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate your insights on this day.

GARVER: Thank you, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Let's turn it over to Norm Thagard, and talk about that point that Lori was bringing up here, and what I was bringing up, this whole idea of a new vehicle. Much easier said than done. The shuttle program itself was kind of built on the fumes of Apollo. A lot of the technology was inculcated into it. And to start thinking about something radically new involves a tremendous amount of money, like Apollo-level type money, doesn't it?

NORM THAGARD, FORMER ASTRONAUT: Well, I don't know that it requires that much money, but a new vehicle is going to require something certainly like the shuttle did. That is a lot of money and it's several years. We don't want to be in a situation where we can't fly, so we will make the shuttle fleet safe, and support the international space station.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about that support among the American people. On a day like today, everybody is supportive of the space program. Everybody says it's important. Everybody says it's something that is a part of us, a reflection of us, and we feel good about it. But then on a day to day basis as it goes on, people don't pay a lot of attention. How do you explain that?

THAGARD: It's just human nature, but it does mean a lot to a nation. I was always impressed with the Russians because when I was there in '94 and '95, they were very strapped economically, and yet they continued to support their space program despite personal hardship in many cases, and the reason was national pride. They knew what that program did for their country. It was one of the few bright things they could point to, and they couldn't give it up.

O'BRIEN: And the interesting thing is, they still keep it going. It's not easy for them to do it, because they are broke, but they do manage to keep the assembly lines going, those Soyuz rockets flying, and they keep Russians in space. That says something about how Americans, how Russians, see themselves as a people, and maybe very soon the Chinese.

THAGARD: Exactly. And I think all those three nations you just mentioned know very well that there's a difference between a nation that can put humans in space, and the ones that can't.

O'BRIEN: Norm, before we get away, this had to be a hard day, particularly for you.

THAGARD: It's a tough day, and the way you get through it is you try to ignore the purpose of all of this, and just concentrate on the mechanics of what's going on, because you'll just break down if you do otherwise.

O'BRIEN: Reflect on it later in private. Norm Thagard, thank you very much.


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