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Scott Kelly is Interviewed about the Blue Origin Launch; Historic Space Launch on Hold; Weather at Launch Site; Blue Origin Crew Heads to Launch Site. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired October 13, 2021 - 09:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: You are looking at live pictures at Launch Site One in west Texas. This as the crew aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket gets ready to launch to the edge of space. We should note, the launch has been on hold for 16 minutes, more than 16 minutes now, holding at 45 minutes to launch. We're waiting for updates as to why that is and when that might change.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. As we wait for that information, we are lucky enough to have with us retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly.

Great to have you with us this morning.

You know, first, I'd just love to get your thoughts on what we're seeing and what this means as someone who, you know, as an astronaut, which is -- there are so few of you who have made that journey, walk us through, you know, how this crew might be feeling in these moments, especially with this now 17-minute hold.


SCOTT KELLY, RETIRED NASA ASTRONAUT: Well, you know, it's interesting, they don't really have a long time to sit in the rocket and think about what they're about to do, which might be a good thing, you know, especially when you're flying for the very first time and you don't know what to expect.

On a, you know, shuttle or Soyuz launch, you get in about three and a half hours prior to launch, you have a lot more stuff to do, but it was kind of neat to see these guys, you know, get into the car and drive out there and get in just a few minutes before launch.

But they do have a launch hold right now. I'm not sure what it is. It could be weather related perhaps or it could be mechanical.

SCIUTTO: We're just learning that the hold is being described by the company Blue Origin as related to, quote, vehicle readiness. I assume they're talking about the space vehicle.

And, by the way, you know better than us, that, you know, they cross their t's and dot their i's, right, you know, moments to launch. But when you hear that term there, what does it mean to you?

KELLY: Well, it could be, you know, a failure of some hardware or software. It could actually also be paperwork. You know, I can remember being my first shuttle flight in 1999, STS-103, I think we held one of our -- or aborted one of our launch attempt days not because they thought there was anything wrong with the vehicle, but because there was something wrong with the paperwork. And, like you said, you know, cross the t's and dot the i's is important here as well.

HILL: So we're also hearing now, they're saying that this is a -- they're just checking out a few things. Could be normal. So it could be -- you know, to your point, hey, maybe it is paperwork. Sometimes when you get stuck at the gate it feels like, when you're on a regular plane and you hear that they're waiting for paperwork.

You know, it's interesting, though, as you hear that, of course there's been a lot made about this letter that was signed by 21 current and former employees of Blue Origin. They raised some safety concerns and they said in that letter, of the it 21 people there, they said that they wouldn't be comfortable getting on a Blue Origin flight. I asked Audrey Powers about that, who, of course, is scheduled to go up on this flight today. She said she didn't have any concerns. She works at Blue Origin. She was a flight controller for NASA for a number of years.


She has quite a resume.

I'm curious, when you hear things like that, when you see a letter like that, is that something that should give pause based on your experience?

KELLY: Well, I think anytime, you know, somebody gets on a rocket there should be a little bit of pause. You know, if they didn't, I don't think they would be human, you know, because it's just such an unnatural act.

So, you know, of course, when something like that comes out, I think, you know, if I was the crew member on board, I would look into it thoroughly. And then, you know, make a decision from there.

SCIUTTO: Scott Kelly, you've set your own records in space. This trip in total will be about ten minutes, about three minutes of weightlessness. Still a remarkable feeling for anyone. By the way, I continue to raise my hand for any opportunity to do the same.

But for folks at home who are watching this, can you just describe it, as best you can, what that feels like? I mean you spent a year in space. They're going to get ten minutes. But, still, something most of us will never experience.

KELLY: Yes. Yes, so, you know, there's certain things you look forward to when you're laying on the launchpad getting ready to launch. You look forward to the -- just the dynamic event of, you know, punching a hole in the sky while riding a rocket through space. But you also look forward to the mission. You look forward to all the objectives you have to complete. You might look forward to the amount of time you're going to be here.

You know, this flight, like you said, is very short, ten or 11 minutes long total, so not a whole lot of time to -- to appreciate it.

But I think what they're getting ready to experience is basically an amusement park ride on steroids. It will probably be, you know, the greatest ride of their lives.


HILL: You said, you know, when you would sit there, you talk -- you think about all the things you're preparing for, and you're preparing for this mission.

What do you see as the mission of this flight?

KELLY: Well, I think it's raising awareness about space flight. It's providing more common access to people to launch into space because I do think it's -- you know, gives us a unique perspective on the planet and what we're capable of achieving. I think it, you know, inspires and motivates kids to study those STEM subjects that are so important.

So, you know, I think mostly it's an inspirational mission. Now, hopefully, at some point, they'll start putting maybe like college kids on here with some cool science experiments and, you know, I'd love to see kids like Make a Wish kids get to go on a rocket launch some day.


SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, just given your own experience, and, again, you spent a year in space, the question, are they astronauts, right? And, by the way, I mentioned this earlier, going back to the Mercury probe, right, there were some debate given that the mission control was controlling the rocket ship, they weren't really flying it as to whether, you know, how much control they were in, right, you know, what role they were playing.

But are these folks becoming, joining the club of astronauts today?

KELLY: Well, you know, there's different kinds of experiences. You know, there's the professional astronauts that might have flown on the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station. All those jobs are much more, you know, challenging and take a lot more effort and commitment than what these guys are doing here right today.

But, you know, having said that, they're going above the carmen line, which is the line that designates where space begins. So I think if you're strapping yourself into a rocket, and you go above that line, call yourself whatever you want.

HILL: There you go.

Scott Kelly, really great to have you with us today. Thank you so much for your insight.

I do want to turn now to our colleague, Kristin Fisher, who is there at the launch site.

Kristin, this hold now, 23 minutes. What do we know about why?

KRISTIN FISHER, CNN SPACE AND DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest information that we got from the company, Blue Origin, is that this 22-minute long hold is due to vehicle readiness. And, I mean, that phrase, vehicle readiness, that is, I think, intentionally vague and very broad. I mean it could mean a lot of things. One thing it does not appear to mean is that it is something weather related, which caused two previous delays because of high winds.

But this phrase, vehicle readiness, and the ability of which, you know, we can interpret many -- that to mean many different things. This is something that you with not experience during a NASA launch in which we would all have access to the audio inside mission control and you can hear exactly what was happening. This is not a government sending people into space. This is a private company. We saw the same thing happen with SpaceX's all civilian crew to orbit a few weeks ago, the Inspiration 4 crew, the press did not get as much access or as information as it was used to getting when NASA runs the show.


FISHER: And so now we're seeing a similar thing happen with Blue Origin.


But the latest we've heard, this is an issue with vehicle readiness and the crew in a holding pattern, just like rest of us.

SCIUTTO: Space is hard. And anyone involved with it has been saying that for decades. And this, a demonstration. But it's a good point, Kristin, right, because public organizations, like NASA, have an obligation to share as much information with the public as possible. This is a private company, different standards.

We will continue to follow this. As you see there, the hold has been on for coming up on 25 minutes now. We're going to continue to update you. And while we wait for an update, we're going to take a short break.

Please stay with us.



SCIUTTO: We are watching live pictures of the Blue Origin spacecraft. It is still on a hold there. That's that H -- it's been on a hold for 30 minutes or so now. When that hold is lifted, if and when, it will be about 45 minutes from launch time. William Shatner, three other members of this crew, they have yet to walk out to the launchpad as we wait. We're going to see what detail the company gives about the explanation they've given so far, which is to say that it is, quote, vehicle readiness that is at issue and causing this delay.

HILL: Vehicle readiness, a term that our correspondent Kristin Fisher said was intentionally vague.

Let's check in with meteorologist Chad Myers in the CNN Weather Center.

One other thing she pointed out, though, Chad, is that it clearly is not a weather issue, it would seem, or they would have said so.

What are the conditions at the launch site right now?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, very good compared to where we were just a couple of days ago. Yesterday, the winds were gusting to 25 and 30 miles per hour. We haven't even had a gust over 8 miles per hour in the past six hours.

And the launch window here is a lot larger than, let's say, if you're sending a ship to the Space Station. The Space Station's going 17,000 miles per hour right now. You send a rocket up five minutes late, that Space Station is gone. It's 2,000 miles out of your way. And so that's why the window they have here is hours long because they're not trying to catch up to anything.

Winds, right now, are nice and light. Temperatures are good. Sunshine everywhere.

Now, the longer they wait, or if they have to hold this, the chances of the winds picking up is a little bit greater. We probably could get up into the 12 to 15 mile range and that could probably be a problem again later on this afternoon but hopefully we don't have to wait that long.

The front came through last night. We talked about the tornados that were on the ground. That was the front that pushed away the south winds and now there are west winds and they are much, much lighter. We still have some big storms out there in plains, but, at least for now, no storms in west or southern Texas. Good stuff.


SCIUTTO: Thanks so much, Chad Myers.

That is motion there. Why is the car driving to the launchpad? Because that hold we were telling you about has been lifted. And now the countdown clock has started again. It's blow 44 minutes here. Whatever the vehicle readiness issue seems to have been addressed.

We should note, who's driving that pickup truck with the crew inside, well, it's Jeff Bezos, who owns the company.

We're going now to Kristin Fisher, who's on the ground.

Kristin, did you get any more detail about what caused the hold and what happens next?

FISHER: No word on what caused the hold. The Blue Origin webcast simply said they went through all of their checks. The vehicle was deemed go for launch. So at this point in time, you can see William Shatner in the middle seat, in the back seat, making his way to the launchpad with Jeff Bezos driving. Quite a moment for the founder of Blue Origin and his childhood hero sitting in the back seat, the actor who, of course, played Captain Kirk in all of those "Star Trek" franchises.

And, you know, there's really something to be said about, this is not just a space flight for these four crew members. This is also an experience that started on Saturday. It's an experience in team building, in crew building. They spent two days in astronaut training here at Launch Complex One, even though this is a totally autonomous spacecraft, they don't have to do a whole lot. And one of my favorite things that William Shatner actually said was, he actually made a mistake and described it as rehearsing instead of training. Clearly hard to, you know, get past some of the language that he's been so used to as an actor for so many years.

But that line, along with the fact that he keeps talking about how terrified he is, he says he's scared and, you know, Erica, you and I talked about this, I just found it so refreshing to hear somebody actually say, hey, I'm scared to go to space. I'm excited. He has full confidence in Blue Origin and the crew that he will be able to get up to space and back down to earth safely, but he's also openly admitting that he's afraid.


FISHER: And that is, you know, historically speaking, not the kind of right stuff that you want professional astronauts to say.

But, you know, one more thing, Jim. Blue Origin has just been under tremendous scrutiny. Yes, this is a time of celebration for the company on the verge of their second crewed flight after, you know, nearly more than 20 years in business. But this is also a time of intense scrutiny because just two weeks ago you had 21 current and former Blue Origin employees sign on to an essay complaining about what they describe as a toxic workplace environment where professional dissent is actively stifled.


They complained about sexual harassment concerns, but also safety concerns. And these are all concerns that Blue Origin adamantly denies. And so even though the company denies it, they also very clearly have taken great pains throughout their webcast today to stress the emphasis on safety, that they are putting on not just this launch but every launch.

And I should also note, that there have been 17 successful, consecutive launches of this New Shepard rocket. So they believe in it. Jeff Bezos clearly does. He flew on it. And William Shatner and this crew says they do too. HILL: And, Kristin, you know --

SCIUTTO: Kristin --

HILL: Oh, I was just going to ask -- if I could ask Kristin a quick question too. In terms of Audrey Powers, right, I mean we asked her about that letter, did it give her any pause. She said, no. But she has not only an incredible career, right, when it comes to her time at NASA. She's, you know, she's also a pilot, she's an attorney.


HILL: But, also, her specific involvement when it comes to safety for Blue Origin. You know, has there been any talk about if or why that figured into her being on this particular flight, this particular launch?

FISHER: You know, that's a great question. And Blue Origin did not address it. But, I mean, it -- there was always a very good chance that they were going to put another Blue Origin employee on this second crewed launch. And if it was going to be any employee, Audrey Powers was always going to be at the very top of the list. I mean she has been intimately involved in the New Shepard rocket, its development, its safety, everything for eight years now. I mean very few people know this rocket as well as she does.

So, it is fitting that she is one of the faces of Blue Origin right now as it deals with a lot of these accusations from inside and outside of the company. But just objectively speaking, she is somebody who has always wanted to go to space, worked at NASA for so many years and definitely deserves this ride into space.

SCIUTTO: Kristin Fisher, thanks so much.

And we should note, William Shatner is on board. There are three other crew members. WE mentioned Audrey Powers. She was a flight controller for NASA, 2,000 hours of console time in mission control. Dr. Chris Boshuizen, Planet Labs, with that company now, but he also was with NASA's Ames Research Center, and Glen de Vries, he runs Metidata Solutions. It's a company that does clinical research. Those are the four. Being driven now to the launch site by Jeff Bezos.

Now, we should note that Blue Origin, the company, just tweeted, we are a go for number NS18 astronaut load. Again, noting that point. There have been -- this will be the 18th launch. The crew headed to the launch tower for final preparations and also their entry into that capsule.

Let's bring back for a moment now Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station, Miles O'Brien, a CNN aviation and aerospace analyst. Also joining us, Dr. Bernard Harris, a former NASA astronaut, the first African-American to walk in space.

Great to have all three of you here. Particularly good to have folks who have been in that position before, waiting for launch time.

Perhaps I could begin with you, Dr. Harris.

Just describe what it feels like to be moments away from launching into space. In this case it's three times the speed of sound, more than 2,000 miles an hour. What do you feel in those moments before you go?

DR. BERNARD HARRIS, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT: Well, you know, it depends on whether it's your first mission or your second mission. So, as I think about what's happening now, I have to reflect back on my first mission. And there was a sense of nervousness. Sometimes I will joke and say, you know, I'm an American astronaut, I don't get nervous about anything. But that's not true. It is not normal to blast off in space, although it's getting pretty, pretty commonplace these days.

HILL: Not normal. It is getting more commonplace. But, yes, I think most of us would agree, it definitely doesn't feel normal.

As we look at this, Commander Hadfield, I was struck by something you said in an interview I think earlier this week. We were talking about what it must be like in these moments, especially if it is your first flight here. And you said the best antidote for fear is confidence.

I know you've been, you know, in touch with William Shatner. Is he feeling confident, do you think, this morning?

COL. CHRIS HADFIELD (RET.), FORMER COMMANDER OF INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION: Yes, he's a confident guy. And he's had a good look at it, you know. He does his prep. And he's talked to everybody. And he's not just going for a lark. I mean part of the reason that you can feel confident getting onboard, like Bernard did and I did when we flew, was because of the preparation.

In this case he's not flying the ship, but he's not randomly there either. And so, do your homework, learn your lines, make sure you're ready for the moment and that gives you a great calm and a confidence that, you know, you're going to be able to play your part.

And then, at some point, you have to be slightly fatalistic and recognize, you know, in his case, I was born in '31. I was 30 when Al Shepherd flew, you know. And now I'm getting a chance.


If I die today, hey, you know, I'm 90, I've led a full life. I'm probably not going to die. And this is a great experience and it's worth the risk. You've got to get that sort of settled inside yourself so then you can actually live the moment. And talking to Bill, I'm pretty sure he's done all those things.

SCIUTTO: Thinking of that, someone who's lived 90 years, all the technological advances they have witnessed over that time period. We had Scott Kelly, of course a very experienced astronaut on just moments ago. He's had 520 days in space over four flights.

Miles O'Brien, he described it as punching a hole in the sky, right? Space is hard even if you've done 17 launches prior on a vehicle like this one. Just describe the technology that goes into this, each launch.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AEROSPACE ANALYST: Well, we used to say when they were, you know, strapping in the likes of Kelly and Harris into shuttles that, you know, it's a million-plus moving parts all from the low bidder. And that -- and many of them single-point failure parts. So it's scary stuff.

This system, we should point out, is a lot safer than the shuttle. Of course, it's not going nearly as far and not nearly as much energy. It takes about 15 times more energy to put a craft into orbit than what we're going to see here today.

But, crucially, there is a crew escape system here. The capsule separates from the rocket whenever there's trouble and they come down under a parachute. The shuttle didn't have that. So, you know, as they're sitting there, yes, there's a lot to be concerned about when you're doing this. And, of course, as the astronauts on this panel will tell you, what they would frequently do is recite the astronaut's prayer, which is, dear Lord, please don't let me be the one to mess this up. I (INAUDIBLE).

But these (INAUDIBLE) they -- they don't have any particular tasks. They don't have to worry about that prayer. They're going for the ride. They can enjoy it. And they've got those big, beautiful windows. And they know they have, relatively speaking, a safe way to do it.

SCIUTTO: By the way, Erica, I'm going to steal that prayer just going forward for all -- for all uses, professional and otherwise.

HILL: Fair enough. That big, beautiful window, I mean that's, you know, what we've heard, you know, William Shatner's looking forward to looking out of that window.

But, you know, Dr. Harris, give us a sense of what was that first moment like for you when you felt weightlessness for the first time, when you were able to look out of that window and see that view of earth from space?

HARRIS: Well, it was -- it was wonderful. As Miles and Chris talked about, the shuttle is a little bit different animal. We go up to 250 nautical miles above the earth, traveling at 17,500 miles an hour, which would (INAUDIBLE) around the world in 90 minutes, sunset or sunrise every 45.

And I remember our launch profile takes about 8.5 minutes or so, pulling about 3, 3.5 g's on the way up. And you go from, you know, that force on your body to zero gravity in a split second.

And I just remember sitting in my seat and noticing my checklist. This is the books that we use in order to make sure that we do everything right, that we don't mess -- as was mentioned a minute ago -- don't mess things up. And so it just begin to float up in front of me and I realized that I was at zero gravity.

And so it was a wonderful experience because now, you know, I'm bound in my seat and what I want to do is I want to get out and experience microgravity. So I unbuckled my seat and I popped out like a toast out of a toaster. And getting the feeling of, you know, your space legs, as it were, was neat.

And so I -- I floated up to the window and looked out for the very first time and I actually -- in our orbit actually ended up looking up at the earth instead of down, as you would normally think about. So -- but everything is -- changes, of course.

SCIUTTO: Dr. Harris, you just made this 12-year-old boy very jealous as you describe that. I'm picturing myself with Skittles, you know, kind of popping them into my mouth in weightlessness.

Just as we watch that live picture, I just learned something I didn't know. They've got to walk up, right?

HILL: Yes.

SCIUTTO: I mean you picture all the launches at NASA, you know, there's that -- those famous elevator rides up. But they've got to -- they've got to ear -- they've got to earn -- that's a few flights of stairs. They've got to earn their ride on the spaceship.

HILL: They are definitely getting their steps in today. That is for sure, going up those -- up those stairs as they make their way up to the capsule there.

I have to say, I just love, Dr. Harris, I loved watching your face as you were recounting and reliving that moment because you can hear it in your -- in your voice, but to really see that, you know, that smile on your face, that joy. I mean it really -- yes, I'm right there with you, Jim, it's just an incredible thing, even just to hear about.


HILL: I also want to bring in now Jonathan McDowell. He's an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center.


Great to have you with us this morning.

You know, as -- we've been talking so much about, especially for astronauts, part of what they would be thinking about in these moments