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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Report to Explain Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Aired August 25, 2003 - 19:07   ET

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

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Moving on, seven months after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, NASA is bracing for tomorrow's report on how and why it happened.
All seven astronauts on board Columbia died during the accident on February 1.

Tomorrow the panel that investigated America's second shuttle disaster will release what is expected to be a hard-hitting report.

Miles O'Brien joins us now from CNN Center in Atlanta with a preview -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, the man who led the independent investigation into the loss of Columbia says there really won't be any surprises in the report and that is no surprise, given that retired admiral Hal Gehman has released the recommendations publicly in the midst of their work.

We know, of course, it was a piece of insulating foam that fell off Columbia's big orange external fuel tank that likely caused a fatal breach in the heat shield on the orbiter's wing.

NASA managers knew about the foam strike, but had seen it happen many times before and determined it was nothing to worry about. But they never conducted any tests like the one you're about to see, held by the accident board in July when a piece of foam about the size of the piece that hit Columbia was launched at the same speed at a mock- up of the shuttle wing and it left, as you can clearly see, a catastrophically large hole that would allow heat, to -- at re-entry to melt the shuttle's aluminum skin.

Now I asked NASA's administrator, Sean O'Keefe, who I spoke to exclusively yesterday why the space agency never conducted a test like that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: In the future, what we've really got to focus on is looking at any of those anomalies that we can't explain to actually go through the effort to make sure that anything we can understand, we've never seen or that we've seen repetitively and had different consequences, we ought to really know what the results are through the analysis. Much more thorough than what we have done.

(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: O'Keefe admits this is something the agency just flat missed, his words.

How that happened in an agency that professes safety as an overriding priority is where the report will be most harsh. O'Keefe says he will embrace the report recommendations. And that leaves him, Anderson, with the tough task of reforming the NASA organization.

COOPER: Miles O'Brien, thanks for the update.

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