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Liftoff for Discovery

Aired July 26, 2005 - 10:30   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: It's now eight minutes 18 seconds until the intended launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. I'm Miles O'Brien, live from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, welcoming viewers around the world as we share, this tense moment, two-and-a- half years after the loss of Columbia and her crew, NASA poised to return the space shuttle fleet to flight.
We're inside what is known as terminal count. I'm joined by astronaut Jim Riley. And in essence, terminal count is what it sounds like. The final countdown, and a very important time where things happen very rapidly, Jim?

JIM REILLY, ASTRONAUT: Exactly. In fact, now what they're going to be doing is going through the APU hydraulics start, which Jim Kelly will be...

M. O'BRIEN: That's the auxiliary power unit, which you referred to, which powers the shuttle, provides electricity in key points, when it's on launch and landing.

REILLY: Absolutely. The controls, the aero surfaces, the flaps on the vehicle, as well as some the other equipment, and they're also going to be connecting the fuel cells so that we'll get onboard power to Discovery at that point.

M. O'BRIEN: And you're seeing the first lady who has join this launch. She's not far from where we are, in the VIP viewing area, and the governor as well, her brother-in-law, here for this launch on this beautiful sunny day.

And if you look out at the launch pad, that shot we've been showing you in that white room, you see what amounts to a jet wave being swung away. Only in this case, it's a shuttle-way I guess, having buttoned up that shuttle, the crew hatch is sealed, the crew buttoned up, everybody go for launch, and the countdown is at its point now with about 6:45 seconds to go.

One of the things that they're thinking about all times, Jim, are the series of abort scenarios. I want to show some quick animations while we listen to this launch to show what the crew could contend with. If you lost an engine or two very early on, there is a scenario called return to launch site, which would actually put the space shuttle back on the ground here in about 20 minutes after launch. Tell us how that would unfold.

REILLY: If we were to lose an engine at a critical phase, just coming off the pad, then we wouldn't have enough energy to get across the ocean. So the abort profile then would just be a fly backwards, and slowdown, and then drop back into the atmosphere, and then start a return back to Kennedy Space Center to land back at the shuttle landing facility.

M. O'BRIEN: Flying backwards, supersonic in your own plume, sounds like something you don't want to try.

REILLY: Not unless we absolutely have to.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, that's if you lose engines very early on or a couple of engines, and what happens is, as we get closer to this ascent, this eight-and-a-half minute ride to space, each milestone of altitude and speed, the crew is making a decision as to what the abort scenario would be. They're sort of spring-loaded for whatever abort they can pull off at any given moment.

The next one would sort of a trans-Atlantic abort, essentially they have enough speed, if they lose an engine at this point, to make it to Spain or France, get across the ocean. Explain how would that unfold.

Exactly, once we get to a point where we have enough velocity to cross the ocean, then we will then pick our abort sites, to be either Zergo (ph), Submarone (ph) or Le Tube (ph) in France, where the orbiter could re-enter the atmosphere and land at any those three sites.

M. O'BRIEN: Once again, none of these have ever been done. Two sites in Spain, one in France, and then there is one abort that actually has occurred. Back in the pre-Challenger days, main engine shutdown kind of early on the ascent. It's called abort to orbit, abort to orbit, meaning they can achieve an orbit, but perhaps not at the altitude you expected. In other words, as you get higher, add velocity, if you lost an engine there, we still might be able to achieve a space orbit?

REILLY: Absolutely. In fact, that is, as you mentioned, the only abort we've ever had in the space shuttle program, and that was an abort-to-orbit case, where you had enough performance to make it to orbit, but as soon as you get to orbit, you'll have to do an orbital maneuvering system burn to circularize your orbit and raise your altitude high enough.

M. O'BRIEN: Possibly, though, in that case you might not have enough altitude to make it to the space station, but that's a scenario that certainly seems remote at this point, given the fact the shuttle seems to be working so well. One other one, they call it an abort once around. What is that -- what kind of a situation does that involve?

REILLY: If we had a system failure, something critical, that looked like we wouldn't be able to stay safely in orbit, then that is an option where we would then just do one single orbit of the Earth, and then return back to the landing site right here, at Kennedy Space Center. All right. So that could, after 90 minutes, mean the shuttle would arrive back here. Those are the things that are on the minds of crew. They spend all of this time in simulators practicing for these sorts ever things.

We are now at four minute -- inside the four-minute point. What's going on in the countdown right now, Jim?

REILLY: Right now what they've done is they're getting ready for the engine starts and they'll be doing that very quickly. They're going to now go to the inertial measurement units onboard, which will be the navigation controls. The main engines are gimbling right now, so they're getting -- they can actually feel that inside on the flight deck.

M. O'BRIEN: When you say gimbling, we're seeing it here happen right now. The engines actually have directable thrust, and when you gimble, they're just moving around them to make sure they work properly, right?

REILLY: Right, now that hydraulic systems are active, they can gimble the engines, and they're doing the final check of the engines to make sure that they can gimble through all the motions, and you can feel that as a slight swing onboard the shuttle.

M. O'BRIEN: Now coming up, we're going to see. They're going to do some pressurization to that oxygen tank, sort of get it buttoned up. Are they passed the point where here to replenishing the fuel?

REILLY: They'll be doing it just right up to the very end, the last few minutes. But they're in basically just a sustaining mode right at this point. As soon as they remove the beanie cap, then it will be completely buttoned up and on its own.

M. O'BRIEN: That beanie cap, if you look at top there of that picture that you see right there, right at the pointy end of the orange external fuel tank, I think the technical term is the gaseous oxygen vent hood, but I appreciate you using the layperson's term. What a switch here, I'm doing the NASA vernacular. Basically that takes excess oxygen gas -- there it goes -- from forming at the top that can pose an ice-and-debris problem there. Once that is removed, we're getting down to the final moments and inside the point of three minutes.

Now, the fuel cell start-up, where they kind of go internal, fuel cells are what power the orbiter while on orbit, that's an important milestone as well.

REILLY: That's true. And what that'll do, is that will be the onboard power supply now, and the crew has now gotten the clearance to close and lock their visors and do their last buttons up for what they're going to be wearing when they go to space.

M. O'BRIEN: Now one new thing here is, deactivation of the bipod heaters. We talked a little while ago, about how there were heaters where there use to be foam and the bipods. They turned them off right before launch?

REILLY: Yes, and that's true. In fact, they just did that. They just turned off the bipod heaters, and they've been on so to preclude any ice formation where that foam has been removed. And now they've been taking off, so that we've got 1:30 left to go.

M. O'BRIEN: One minute and thirty seconds to go. There as heaters as well, and the solid rocket boosters that will deactivated in the next 20 seconds or so, and then at 50 seconds, an important point, transferring to internal power. In other words, the shuttle is no longer tied to the shore, so to speak.

REILLY: Exactly. It'll have its own onboard power available at that point, and a real critical moment is at 31 seconds, and that's the transition to the onboard.

M. O'BRIEN: At 31 seconds the ground launch sequence. It goes into auto sequence, as you see. The crowd gathering here beneath the countdown clock. The flags limp, the weather perfect, the shuttle apparently the same. Let's listen to NASA's George Diller and the radio calls between mission control, launch control and the Space Shuttle Discovery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Live from handoff to Discovery's computers. T-minus 31 seconds. The handoff has occurred. Discovery's computers now in control.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Firing chain is armed.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sounds pressure water system is active, is being activated.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) systems armed. T-minus 10 seconds . Go for main engine start, seven, six, five -- three engines up and burning -- three, two, one -- and liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery, beginning America's new journey to the moon, Mars and beyond. And the vehicle has cleared the palate.

M. O'BRIEN: The Space Shuttle Discovery on its way. This is a critical period of time, eight-and-a-half of, well, a lot of violence you might say to get them to space. What it's like now onboard there?

REILLY: Right now they're feeling a lot of shaking onboard the flight deck. They're about to go supersonic, and you'll hear the call to throttle down, which is where they're going through max aerodynamic pressure, and you'll hear the vehicle, and behind us it's just roaring inside the solid rocket boosters. And you can feel that onboard the shuttle inside, and you can see on the outside of the vehicle, the shocks are forming right now as they're going supersonic. M. O'BRIEN: Those are actually called shock collars, and that occurs -- it basically it makes the water vapor condense as it goes through at supersonic speeds, right?

REILLY: Exactly. In fact, they're forming the (INAUDIBLE). They're continuing to accelerate until they hit about five times the speed of sound in about two minutes when we kick off the solid rocket boosters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go at throttle up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Discovery is...


M. O'BRIEN: Sounds like Eileen is getting -- Eileen is getting rattled around a little bit there, as we hear the famous go with throttle up call.

REILLY: Absolutely. In fact, they go with throttle up and here about a minute, less than a minute, we're going to have the solid rocket boosters kick off, and then...

M. O'BRIEN: That's a key point. We should point out that once you light those solid rocket boosters, there's no turning them off. And that first couple of minutes is very critical, because there aren't many abort scenarios in that situation. There are no.

REILLY: Exactly. In fact, we're pretty much along for the ride for that first two minutes and 17 seconds on the solid rocket boosters. Everything happens pretty quick after that. For the next six and half minutes on the three-man engines, as we continue to accelerate uphill, as they will today, until you hit orbital velocity here at eight and half minutes, at 17,500 miles an hour.

M. O'BRIEN: We're right at two minutes. We should see those solid rocket boosters drop off. We see a little flare. Off they go. Like tossing a couple cigarettes out of a fast-moving car. And that's a good moment. You do...

REILLY: Absolutely.

M. O'BRIEN: We used to all be the sigh of relief at that moment, because, of course, we thought of Challenger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Speed now, 3,030 miles per hour, altitude 33 miles. 40 miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Not bad. 40 miles of altitude in two-and-half minutes. That's not bad. I'd say that's a decent performance.

REILLY: That's a pretty good move.

M. O'BRIEN: But, nevertheless, there's still a lot of peril here, because you've got another six minutes of powered flight. What's going on now? REILLY: Exactly. Right now, everything is smoothed out on the flight deck. So all of the vibration that they had on the solid rocket boosters has now gone away. And they're now waiting for the next calls, which would a negative return call, which means they're through the RTLS capability. Now they're picking up the (INAUDIBLE) and (INAUDIBLE) phones, which means...

M. O'BRIEN: Which means, if you lose two engines, you can make it to Spain.

REILLY: If you lose one engine, you can make it on the two remaining engines to Spain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All systems in good condition. Altitude now, 254,000 feet for about 48 miles. Discovery speed of 4,500 miles per hour. 85 miles northeast of the Kennedy Space Center.

M. O'BRIEN: You're listening to the voice of James Hartsfield (ph), who is Houston at the public affairs office -- officer there, sitting in mission control. The same man who brought us the terrible news about the loss of Columbia two and a half ago. This picture is really designed for engineers to make sure they don't see debris, but it's an awful lot fun for us to kind of go along for the ride, isn't it?

REILLY: Absolutely. You're looking from the top of the tank, down the belly of the orbiter. And there, sticking out the right side -- or the left side, as you're looking at, is the right wing of the orbiter Discovery. And you can see the edge of the Earth in the background there.

M. O'BRIEN: Back down to the ground here, the flag still flapping ever so nicely, and -- about three minutes or so into the mission. Where are we on the potential abort scenarios now?

REILLY: Right now we're still in the two-engine towel (ph) and we got the negative return call, which means they won't come back to Kennedy Space Center for anything that happens now. They'll continue on across the ocean.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All systems remain go for Discovery.

M. O'BRIEN: Altitude and speed are their friend now, and each bit of it that they gain, they get another option, another possibility, another place to go if something should go wrong. And in about 20 seconds, they're basically in a scenario where they could make it aboard for orbit, right?

REILLY: Exactly. Anything that happens here, as you said, in about 12 seconds, they're going to be, press the ATO. In other words, if anything happens, they continue on to orbit.

M. O'BRIEN: And this is where astronauts say all that simulation, all of that training, never had to use it.

REILLY: Absolutely. But that's a good thing. M. O'BRIEN: Yes, that is a good thing. You say -- I've heard this portion of the launch called the electric ride, because it's almost like riding a smooth train or something. Is it really like that?

REILLY: It really is. It's very, very smooth. Once you come off the solid rocket boosters, it is very, very smooth on the three main engines. And the last few minutes, they'll be feeling the force of three times the force of gravity through their chest as they go into final acceleration. And there's our press to ATO call, which means that they could lose an engine at this point and they'll continue on to orbit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... reach a lower than planned but safe (INAUDIBLE), all (INAUDIBLE) full throttle. Speed now 8,000 miles per hour. Altitude, 67 miles. 300 miles northeast of the Kennedy Space Center

M. O'BRIEN: Is that a moment where you breathe you breathe a sigh of relief or do you wait until the main engine cut off?

REILLY: Waiting for main engine cutoff, but the rookies and so (INAUDIBLE) have passed the magic 60-mile mark, so they are now true astronauts in the...

M. O'BRIEN: They're now officially astronauts. I suppose they put the astronaut pin on a little later, right?

REILLY: When they come home, yes, there will be a ceremony for that.

M. O'BRIEN: Look at this great picture here as we see the sun shining on the belly of Discovery there. And, like you said, this camera was put in in direct response to the debris strike which occurred in Columbia, but gives us a wonderful sense where they are. You see the Earth beneath as they make their way into space. I didn't get the altitude call just a moment ago, but they've done a long way in a short period of time.


UNIDENTIFIED: Those calls that Discovery could reach its planned orbit on only two engines if needed. All three continue upright well at full throttle. Just under two minutes to cut-off of the main engines now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Discovery Houston, we see nominal shutdown plan. You will be go for the front deck and go for the pitch maneuver.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Give us -- translate that for us. (INAUDIBLE) into pitch maneuver.

REILLY: Well, what they're going to do is, when they release the tank, one of the things they want to do is get photographs of the tanks on orbit. So they'll do pitch maneuver, they'll plusex (ph) away and basically shove themselves forward from the tank, pitch up and then they'll take photographs from the shuttle.

M. O'BRIEN: There's a pretty good chance you're going to see that, right? Is that possible? Will that camera still be recording at that point?

REILLY: At that point, we may lose the signal. But we're getting a great signal now...

M. O'BRIEN: So far, so good.

REILLY. And the roll, the heads up. You can see the Earth's limb in the background back there.

M. O'BRIEN: So that was the heads up roll. Because what they do is -- most of the asset there, kind of -- well, you might call it upside down, but it doesn't feel like that, right?

REILLY: Exactly. Yes, you're in your seat, so you don't really feel the sensation of being upside down. But you can certainly see it out the windows, and on the instrumentation inside the cockpit.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ... beginning to throttle back to prevent the spacecraft from experimenting portions in excess...

M. O'BRIEN: And you see Launchpad 39B. The only thing more pretty to NASA than a shuttle on the pad is that sight, an empty launchpad, two and a half years later, in what appears to be a flawless ascent to orbit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 30 seconds to cut off of the main engines. 30 seconds.

M. O'BRIEN: And as we say, that cut-off of the main engine, eight minutes and 30 seconds in, which gets them into space and gets them on their way, that was the moment when astronauts used to breathe a sigh of relief. Columbia taught us something different, didn't it?

REILLY: Exactly, in that you can never relax your guard on this, never. Because this has a -- we have very close margins.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, it's interesting. You know, if you think about all the force we just witnessed and felt here. And our bones were rattling. I don't know if you -- it's not something that comes across well on television, that sense of raw power. But that power has to be dissipated somehow, and that's what re-entry is, after all, dissipation of that power. So you can understand the tremendous heat that is involved in all of that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... jettison of the external fume tank.

M. O'BRIEN: I think we're going to see this live, which is extraordinary.

REILLY: They've just gone through main engine cut-offs, so the main engines have now shut down. Those guys are in zero (INAUDIBLE) and there goes the tank. M. O'BRIEN: Look at that. There goes Discovery and the tank. Part their ways. The tank will make its way -- that's spectacular. The tank will be -- you can see the...

REILLY: You can see the jets firing on this one.

M. O'BRIEN: ... the jets firing. To do just what we saw there.

REILLY: And they'll pitch over now and look back at the tank and take some photographs. And that's a great call. That's omesone (ph) not required indicates they're in a good orbit and a good circular orbit.

M. O'BRIEN: He's talking about the orbital maneuvering system, which are rockets that do significant changes in your orbit. And if you don't need to use it, that means that you've had a great launch, essentially. And that's good news. Seeing that separation -- that was spectacular. That was something.

REILLY: That's the first time we've ever seen that.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, we didn't expect we would have that live capability all the way there, but external fuel tank now makes its way toward a controlled entry in the Indian Ocean. It breaks up. Most of it burns up little tiny pieces, falling into the Indian Ocean. It's the only significant piece of the shuttle that is not re-used. Those solid rocket boosters that you saw that came off two minutes in, they have parachutes attached, they go into the ocean. They're fished out by some boats that bring them back, takes them a little while to get them back, but they're ultimately reconditioned, restacked and re- used.

Well, spectacular launch. Jim Reilly, you did a good job.

REILLY: Absolutely. Thank you very much.

M. O'BRIEN: And we are not done here. We're going to come back in just a little bit and we're going to resume our conversation about NASA, about this mission. We'll take another look at that spectacular launch. Look at them, they're putting their coats on and saying all in day's work here at the launch control center and the firing room here at the Kennedy Space Center. Back with more special coverage in just a moment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one and liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery, beginning America's new journey to the moon, Mars and beyond. And the vehicle has cleared the...



M. O'BRIEN: This was the scene just a few moments ago as the Space Shuttle Discovery and her extra (INAUDIBLE) tank parted company about 160 nautical miles above the planet's surface. What a spectacular shot. We weren't sure we going to see that live up until the bitter end there. That shot is there to help engineers make sure there's no debris that fell off that tank, causing a problem to the orbiter itself. But it sure served a nice public relations factor, as well. That was a fun shot to watch.

Joining us once again, Lou Dobbs and Lori Garver. Lou, that was a fun launch to watch, being able to see it like we just did.


M. O'BRIEN: But serious business -- yes. The serious business behind all of this is really what's next for NASA. Lots of talk about retiring the shuttle fleet, lots of talk about a new generation of vehicles. Lots of talk about how NASA does business. It's a lot for the agency to handle right now. You think they're up to it?

DOBBS: I do think they're up to it. And I have to be honest with you, Miles, after watching the external tank separate with the orbiter and to see those amazing picture as the orbiter fired its engines, I mean, that's just breathtaking. The thrill of a launch is always amazing, but that was just an incredible added bonus. And we appreciate you bringing it to us.

The direction for NASA now is clarifying a bit. We've gone through, as you know, Miles, three administrators for NASA, a beleaguered agency to begin with in less than four years, three. It was an unsettled organization before Columbia. It was a bureaucracy. As I was saying earlier, Walter Ritzen (ph) used to say that a bureaucracy is a state of mind, and that state of mind gripped NASA.

I have not -- and I don't know what your experience has been, but I have not heard so up excitement and just optimism as surrounds an administrator who's been there just about three months. Dr. Michael Griffin (ph) is just being received with open arms by the great professionals of NASA. You heard George Diller (ph) say with the launch of discovery, on to the moon, Mars and beyond, and that is the mission for NASA. It's a clear statement.

The days of -- when Dan Goldin was administrator, of cheaper, better, faster -- it looks like we have the hope that it will be better and farther and that this country is once again willing to invest in our space program. They're wonderful professionals. And you know that, Miles at NASA, have been beset by budget constraints, by often awkward and conflicting missions.

It looks like Michael Griffin (ph) and President Bush, to his credit, are bringing direction again to NASA. Now the question will be, will Congress support the budget and move us ahead? Whether it is orbital space plane, whether it be an extension of the shuttle or perhaps another derivation of the space vehicle.

We hope to hear the outline soon, but we're behind on schedule with the International Space Station now by more than a year. We've been dependent upon proton and soyuz (ph), the Russians to supply alpha. And we now need, and it looks like we can expect, the shuttle to take up its part in restoring the International Space Station, resupplying and getting us ready to build that -- that platform to move ahead to the moon.

So I, for one, think there is great reason for the people of NASA, for all of us, to be optimistic about where NASA is now heading.

M. O'BRIEN: Lori Garver, do you share that optimism? Because one of the big concerns that I talk -- that I hear from the rank and file here is that as NASA marches towards retiring the shuttle fleet by 2010, maybe 15 missions, maybe less, there is some concern there will be this down period when there are no flights and they lose a lot of good people. Is that a big concern?

LORI GARVER, FMR. NASA ASSOC. ADMINISTRATOR: Well, there's an interesting dilemma NASA finds itself in. Here we are in this great day of returning the shuttle to flight. We announce, as Lou just said, that we're going back to the moon, onto Mars and beyond. But in order to do that, we have to retire the very vehicle that is taking us on this exciting mission today. A lot has been made of retiring the shuttle, of what will follow it and this gap between having human space flight.

I guess in my view, we've just had a two-and-half year gap in human space flight and keep in mind that we had Americans 100 percent of that time on the International Space Station, thanks to our partners, the Russians. So to me, I think it's probably more important that we move on to develop new vehicles with new technology beyond these next 15 or so space shuttle flights, even if there is a gap between the time when U.S. can launch humans in space.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Lori Garver and Lou Dobbs. Thank you very much. We're going to be back with more. We'll button things up with Jim Reilly and we'll tell you why they're eating beans right now in the launch control center. Stay with us.



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