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Soon: U.S. Attempts First Moon Landing In 50 Plus Years; FBI, Homeland Security Investigating AT&T Outage; Haley Makes Final Pitches In South Carolina Ahead Of Primary; Rep. Nathan Ballentine (R-SC) Discusses About Nikki Haley's Strategy To Stay In The Primary Race. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 22, 2024 - 15:00   ET




BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: We are all going to be watching with bated breath. An American spacecraft is hours away from trying to land on the moon, something the U.S. hasn't done in more than 50 years. Why it's just as hard to pull off now as it was back in the '60s and '70s?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Plus, we use our phones, well, all the time, every day, every hour. But for hundreds of thousands of people, that was not possible earlier today. What we know about today's outage and what it says about how fragile some of these systems actually are.

SANCHEZ: And a deepfake sex tape created by AI is spreading online, targeting the podcaster Bobbi Althoff. What it says about the explosion of computer-generated synthetic media, with fears it could play a dangerous role in the upcoming presidential election.

We're following these major developing stories and many more, all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

Welcome to News Central. We're glad to have you this afternoon. I'm Boris Sanchez, alongside Jessica Dean in Washington, D.C.

And soon, we could see an American feat that's truly out of this world. The first landing on the moon by a U.S. company, a private company. If it succeeds, it'll be the first time the U.S. has achieved a lunar landing in more than 50 years. The Odysseus lander lifted off about a week ago. You're seeing the footage there.

DEAN: Okay, update for you now. It is a little bit - about an hour behind schedule, expecting to touch the moon's surface at 624 Eastern. The moment will not only be historic, but also a confirmation of the mega brain power that made it all happen.


SCOTT PACE, DIRECTOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIV.'S SPACE POLICY INSTITUTE: Some people have likened it to hitting a golf ball in New York and having it go into a particular hole in one in LA. That kind of precision at long distance is also really hard to do.


DEAN: Yes, I'd say so.

CNN Space and Defense Correspondent, Kristin Fischer, has been tracking Odysseus' every step. This is hard and it fails more often than it doesn't.

KRISTIN FISHER, CNN SPACE AND DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Let's be very clear here, guys. Failure is an option. I mean, more than half of all lunar landing attempts have failed, including three over just the last year. So it is very, very difficult to do, even though the feat was first accomplished more than 50 years ago now.

The reason it's still so hard is, first and foremost, it's just technically tough, right?

DEAN: Mm-hm.

FISHER: You're trying to land something a quarter of a million miles away from Earth. That distance means there's a time delay of about three seconds for signals to go from the Earth to the moon and back. So when the spacecraft actually lands, it's basically on its own.

And then the terrain, it's really tough: There's craters, there's boulders, there's dead volcanoes, it's tough to land a robotic spacecraft on that surface. And then there's just the frustratingly terrestrial reasons for why it's tough to land on the moon. You need money, you need manpower and then you need political will. And those were things that the U.S. had, NASA had in spades back during the Apollo era. It doesn't have that now. And these are commercial companies trying to do it for a hundred thousand - excuse me, a hundred million dollars, which is the cost of a Hollywood space blockbuster like "Gravity."


DEAN: But that would be more. It - yes.

FISHER: A hundred million dollars ...

DEAN: Wow.

FISHER: ... that's it. And then - so you look at the political will part. Back then, it was the space race with Russia. Now, it's a space race with China. But I spoke with the CEO of the company behind this lunar lander, Intuitive Machines, a man by the name of Steve Altemus. And he says, I think that this competition with China is a really great thing, actually and here's why.


STEPHEN ALTEMUS, CEO, INTUITIVE MACHINES: We've actually heard the words that we've been to the moon, been there, done that. Well, there's so much more to do on the moon and learn on the moon about living and working in space. If it takes geopolitical tension to drive that to fruition, that's okay. So all competition isn't bad. This one is really motivating a lot of people to put their heart and soul into moving out into space and do space exploration.


FISHER: And this competition really comes to a head with this mission. Because both Intuitive Machines and what China is trying to do is land in the exact same spot on the south pole of the moon.


SANCHEZ: Yes, space getting a lot more crowded.

Kristin, this is sort of like in the parlance of baseball. This is a base hit. This is getting to first base.


SANCHEZ: Because the big picture thing is to not only put humans back on the moon, but then eventually get to Mars. So how does this first step fit into that broader Artemis campaign?

FISHER: That's a good question. So this is essentially a scouting mission for the Artemis astronauts, the first crewed missions returning American astronauts back to the moon. This is part of the CLPS initiative, NASA's CLPS initiative.

They're essentially outsourcing all robotic missions to the moon, letting the commercial companies focus on that so that they can focus on the human landings on building a base on the moon, and then, as you say, someday going on to Mars.

DEAN: Wow. Just step one. All right. We're all going to be watching. Now, 6:24 Easter.

FISHER: It's changed twice today, the time. So now it's 6:24.

SANCHEZ: Right before you got on set ...

FISHER: I know.

SANCHEZ: ... it changed again, yes. So we're going to be watching it closely. Very exciting.

DEAN: Thanks, Kristin.

FISHER: (Inaudible) ...

SANCHEZ: Appreciate it.

DEAN: Well, we're going to explore this historic mission with former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino. He also wrote the book "Moonshot: A NASA Astronaut's Guide to Achieving the Impossible." Mike, we just heard from Kristin about all of this. I'm curious what your opinion is when it comes to this mission being conducted by a private company. NASA is a sponsor. It's involved. But the private sector is really driving this.

MIKE MASSIMINO, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT: Yes, you're right. Thanks very much for having me. I think that that's a good thing, a very strong thing. NASA has given out 14 of these contracts, hoping that about half of them will be successful in a way to save money, but also to encourage commercial development and these private companies to explore, not only for government reasons and exploration, but also for commercial reasons.

And it's worked pretty well. NASA, when it retired (ph) the space shuttle, got into the commercial crew program, sending astronauts to the International Space Station with private vehicles operated by private companies. And now we're doing the same thing with exploring the moon.

So it kind of is a great way, I think, to not only use the brainpower and the resources of NASA, of a great agency, but also of the entrepreneurial spirit and the businesses that we have that are interested in trying to explore for commercial reasons.

SANCHEZ: Michael, what needs to happen for Odysseus to be a success? Because we heard all the challenges, it would be quite a feat for this to succeed. Walk us through the things that need to go right.

MASSIMINO: Well, they've come a long way, right? They launched successfully. They got to the moon. They got into a lunar orbit. And now they're in a position where they want to do a de-orbit burn and get close to the moon's surface.

And as Kristin said earlier, this is a tough part of the moon to land on. When we sent the Apollo astronauts 50 years ago and we were sending spacecraft to the moon, they landed around the equator. It's a much easier place to get to. It's a much easier place to land, less rocks, less obstacles.

But the south pole, where this spacecraft is going, is near a source of water, which is why we're very interested in that, because you need water to sustain life for long-term exploration of the moon, but it's a more difficult place to get to, and it's a more difficult place to land.

When Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 landed on the moon, he had to move the landing site manually. He saw he was coming down in a boulder field, was able to take over manually and fly the spacecraft to where it could land successfully.

You don't have a person on board on this one. So in some ways, it makes it harder because you don't have that intervention, human intervention, to make those last-second adjustments. So it's going to be an automatic landing. The spacecraft is going to be on its own. And that's not going to be easy, especially those last few seconds of making sure that it can land a soft landing, which means not crashing into the moon, but landing softly and successfully.

DEAN: It is going to be an incredible thing to watch. And just the amount of thought and work and science ...

SANCHEZ: The math.

DEAN: ... and math that has gone into this is mind-blowing.

You talked about where exactly it's trying to land, which is that south pole of the moon. You said there's ice - water, that sort of thing. We also know that other nations, like Russia, like China, they want to land there as well. There is a bit of a cohesiveness internationally, so - right now in space, it seems, but is this the beginning of a new space race in a sense?

MASSIMINO: Well, I hope we're able to cooperate with other countries. I think that what we've shown on the International Space Station with our partners in Europe, in Canada, in Japan and also with the Russians that we were able to build an international space station very peacefully. I hope the same goes with lunar exploration.

But it was interesting to hear Steve Altemus in the segment you had right before I came on with Kristin of how he said, "A little bit of competition isn't bad."


So I think, at least from a national perspective, the U.S. trying to stay on top in the space program, in the space race, I think is a good thing. But I think it's not just the governments, it's also these commercial entities. And I think that's the thing we should focus on. It's a partnership now, not just between countries, but also with private enterprise and I think that's a good thing.

SANCHEZ: Yes, it is going to be fascinating. This phone booth going 4,000 miles an hour, thousands of miles away. We hope it does have a soft landing.

Mike Massimino, appreciate the perspective.

MASSIMINO: You bet. Thanks for having me.

SANCHEZ: Of course.

So new this hour, we're learning that the FBI and Homeland Security are investigating the massive outage of AT&T cell service this morning. Much of the network, we should point out, has since been restored.

DEAN: Right. National Security spokesperson John Kirby saying a short time ago that they are working to figure out what happened.

Joining us now, Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst, John Miller.

John, several federal agencies are now involved with this investigation. Do we know anything more from the last time we talked to you about what might have caused this?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, at this point, you've got the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, which is one of the regulators of the cellular industry looking to see what happened. You've got the Department of Homeland Security's CISA, their critical infrastructure people and, of course, you've got the FBI.

Possible causes, environmental. That could be weather. Weather seems to affect 5G more than it did lower grades of phones. But the weather between Washington and Texas, where we saw the earliest outages, seems to be clear. Technical, were they doing an upgrade overnight and installed something that caused a chain reaction? Still unknown. And, of course, the potential of a cyber attack.

SANCHEZ: John, obviously, as soon as we read that there was an outage, one of the first potential causes that came to mind in speculation was a cyber attack. And part of that is because there have been warnings from federal officials in the United States that these kinds of systems are vulnerable.

MILLER: Well, and I mean, not just warning warnings which they generally give, but really specific warnings. I mean, if you go back just a couple of weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the NSA issued a joint bulletin which talks about a Chinese cyber espionage program. It's called Volt Typhoon. And the bulletin reads: "Volt Typhoon has compromised the IT environments of multiple critical infrastructure organizations - primarily in Communications, Energy, Transportation Systems."

So what you're seeing is the government telling us that critical infrastructure, things like the cellular phone carriers, are the target of these infiltration plans. Now, the Chinese one which is called Volt Typhoon, is one that they wanted to warn people about because it hides within the operating system and looks like the normal operations of your system.

But the Russians, for years, ran something called Cozy Bear, which was part of the SolarWinds infiltration, where they basically took the system that people use to update their computers and install things and install patches and all that overnight and infiltrated that. So it's one of the go-to theories when there's no explanation.

Now, let's be clear. The least likelihood here is probably a cyber attack. It's going to end up being more likely something technical. But right now, it's such a massive failure. And there's zero explanation for what caused it. So if they don't know what caused it on the technical side and they're not sharing that information from AT&T, then you can't rule out cyber yet. So we've got to wait.

DEAN: Wait and see.

MILLER: Meanwhile, most of us, we've got our service back. I know I do.

SANCHEZ: Fortunately. DEAN: Me too, thank goodness.


DEAN: That was not great.

All right. John Miller, thanks so much.

Nikki Haley still crisscrossing her own state of South Carolina in an effort to gain some momentum for this weekend's primary and beyond.

Plus, a key U.S. diplomat arrives in Israel as the Biden administration races to secure a pause in the fighting in Gaza and the release of more hostages.

SANCHEZ: And just in, pictures of the meeting that President Biden had just a short time ago with Alexei Navalny's widow and daughter. The White House says that the President expresses condolences to the family as well as his admiration for Navalny's "extraordinary courage and his legacy of fighting against corruption."

Remember, Navalny died inexplicably last week while imprisoned in a Russian penal colony. His widow has accused Vladimir Putin of being behind his death.

Stay with News Central, we're back in just minutes.




DEAN: South Carolina's Republican primary now less than two days away. And at this hour, Nikki Haley is making her final pitch to voters there. She's been crisscrossing her home state in the run-up to Saturday's election and, once again, reiterating her commitment to stay in the race, saying she's not going anywhere. She's also urging people to head to the polls on this final day of early voting.

With us to discuss is Republican South Carolina State Representative Nathan Ballentine. He supports Nikki Haley.

Great to have you here with us. Thank you so much for making time.

I just want to talk first about this latest polling, which shows the former governor, Nikki Haley, running some 35 points behind the former president. How does she make that up between now and Saturday?

REP. NATHAN BALLENTINE (R-SC): Yes. Well, Jessica, it's real easy, she does it the same way she did in New Hampshire. She was getting clobbered in the early polls out there and as it got closer to time, but on the election night, the voters turned out. Here in South Carolina, in the suburbs and our independent voters, they're going to turn out and it's going to be very interesting to see how close that gap becomes. [15:20:05]

DEAN: And she's been pointed in her criticism of Trump, especially lately. So far, that appears to only really appeal to a small slice of the Republican base, these primary voters. We have a fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Tim Scott, who, of course, had his own run for the presidency. But he's endorsed - got out and endorsed the former President Trump. He had this to say earlier today. We'll listen to that.


SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-SC): The one person that stands in the way of having a conversation between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is Nikki Haley. And so getting out of the way is incredibly important, not for the party, but for America's future.


DEAN: So how does Haley combat that narrative and push back against it, that she's preventing the party from shifting its focus to the general election?

BALLENTINE: Yes. Well, first of all, Tim's doing what he's got to do. He's kissed the ring. He's hoping to be the VP. I get it. I understand that. That's good old boy politics. I would say this, the one person that's standing in the way between Donald Trump and Nikki Haley is Donald Trump. He will not debate Nikki Haley. He's already wanting to go debate somebody that he had a better chance at and that would be the 80-year-old President Biden.

Here's the deal, the more that people and the more that the country gets to know Nikki Haley, the more they start to like her and get to know about her. Republicans want to go back to what we had. We are tired of the Democrat-Biden era. I get that. All they know is Trump.

Half of America, if not more, does not know Nikki Haley yet and we've only had three states voting, soon four and then we'll continue on to Michigan and Super Tuesday. And the more she does what you see here, as she gets out and gets her message, her positive message about America, not her self-serving message and her - talk about how corrupt the courts are and this, that and the other.

She said it best in one of her town halls recently. You can lead and you can be stern without basically being a jerk, is what she said. But she said it in nicer words than I did.

DEAN: And so kind of piggybacking on what you're saying there, that the more she gets out in front of this theory, that the more she gets out in front of people the better she'll do. She's vowed to continue on no matter what happens on Saturday to Michigan, which is the next state, then to the Super Tuesday states. How will her team, if she does lose on Saturday, how will her team continue to make the case to donors, because you got to have the money to make this go, that this is a worthy investment? What's the message going to be on Sunday morning, do you think? BALLENTINE: Well, I think certainly it's going to be like America needs a choice. This is not a Soviet-style election where somebody gets 99 percent of the vote. This is not Europe where we have a coronation or kings and so forth.

Look at fundraising alone. I believe her January numbers were 16-, 18 million, something like that. She outraced former president Trump in January. And again, we're just getting started. We will have plenty of times as Republican to take on Joe Biden. But what we need to do is take him on with the strongest candidate. It's my hope that when Republican voters and independent voters go to the polls, they will sit back and truly think, who is our best chance to lead our country in November and win.

I like to wake up or I like to go to bed knowing who our president is. I do not want to have to wake up and have another four more years of chaos if we do not have Nikki Haley as that president.

DEAN: And Trump's team keeps saying that they're going to have enough delegates to have this sewn up by March 19th, which is a little less than a month away. Do you think she just keeps going even if he does cross that threshold? Is it a longer game, you think, at this point?

BALLENTINE: Yes, absolutely. There is so much time left in this. Everybody is trying to hurry this up. You look at the NFL playoffs, not to get sidetracked on sports, but you know, one of those teams was down 17 at halftime. Did anybody go in there and say, hey, it's over, don't show up? No, they showed up, they finished, they ended up winning.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. I'm sorry to use all these cliches, but it is exactly what it is.

America wants a choice, 70 percent of the country do not want a Biden- Trump rematch. And it is my hope and prayer that we do not have a Biden-Trump rematch again.

DEAN: All right. We will look to Saturday to see how that goes. And then what comes next.

Nathan Ballentine, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

BALLENTINE: Thank you, Jessica.

DEAN: Mm-hm. A woman who spent five weeks working in Gaza for Doctors Without Borders is going to join us next. She'll share her firsthand account of the worsening humanitarian crisis as an Israeli offensive in Rafah looms.



SANCHEZ: Right now, a top White House advisor is meeting with the families of American hostages still being held captive in Gaza. This is part of a critical trip to the Middle East where Brett McGurk is meeting with Israel's prime minister and military leaders over ceasefire talks with Hamas.

White House officials say that negotiations right now are going well, but the clock is ticking. U.S. officials are racing to secure a deal before the start of Ramadan on March 10th. Israel has warned that if an agreement isn't reached by that date, the military will move forward with its planned ground offensive in Rafah. More than one and a half million Palestinians are desperately taking shelter there with precious little food or water to survive. Aid groups say the humanitarian crisis there could become a catastrophe.

Joining us now is Karin Huster. She spent time in Rafah helping Doctors Without Borders as a project medical referent for Gaza.


Thank you so much for being with us. You were obviously there in Gaza as a health care provider.