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Ex-astronaut: Shuttle debris not unusual

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Former Discovery commander Norm Thagard said Wednesday that debris often falls off in a shuttle launch.

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- NASA said it would know by Sunday whether debris that fell off the space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank during this week's launch damaged the spacecraft as it blasted into orbit.

CNN's Miles O'Brien spoke Wednesday with former Discovery commander Norm Thagard about the debris.

O'BRIEN: I know whenever you flew -- and you said this to me before -- it was very common to see things flying off that external fuel tank. So it should come as no surprise to us that there are some dings here.

THAGARD: No, it's no surprise at all, Miles. ... It's like a snowstorm or used to be, with all the material coming off the external tank. But as I remember, at the most, it just made little smudges on the windscreen. But what we saw yesterday was not unusual.

O'BRIEN: All right. Now that ding that we saw. ... It's about an inch -- or an inch and a half.

And before we get too alarmed about this, first of all, there are upward of 100 dings on the bottom of an orbiter after every flight. This is sort of just part of the drill, so to speak. But it is important to get a sense, get a handle on this, isn't it?

THAGARD: It is, and you're right. They replaced, I think, about 100 tiles every flight, and they have to repair even more than that. We were always told that you can lose any one tile or maybe even a couple on any area in the shuttle and not be in danger. That area up near the nose wheel door is one of the more critical areas, however. So I'm sure they'll look at that pretty closely.

O'BRIEN: And when you talk about these critical areas, we're talking about areas where there are key hydraulic lines, for example, ways which plasma, that 2,500-degree heat, could get inside a wheel well or something like that, which could cause a real problem, right?

THAGARD: That's right. And if you look at the shuttle, the leading edge of the wings and the nose cone, which are black, are that carbon composite material. Those are the highest temperature areas on the shuttle, about 3,000 degrees.

And then the black tiles on the underside are also high temperature, not quite as hot as 3,000 [degrees] but nonetheless very hot. And then the white tiles and the fabric represent areas where they're even lower temperatures.

O'BRIEN: This potentially puts the engineers, puts the mission management team into a quandary, which I think they predicted, that they would see these kinds of things which are not clear-cut. They're kind of gray-area decisions, and it forces them to make decisions with still limited information because they are, after all, not there, able to poke their finger in it or whatever and take a real look at it.

So in a sense, is it almost too much information? Or is there such a thing in this business?

THAGARD: There's no such thing as too much information. But another problem here is they've never had a lot of this data before. They never had those camera views. So this is new territory, and it's going to take some time for them to sort it out.

I noticed that at yesterday's post-launch press conference, they even were uncertain about the size of some of the material that was coming off, just because of the camera angles and they're unfamiliarity with those.

O'BRIEN: Well, and that does lead to the issue. You have a lot of information, but in a sense maybe some of it is deceiving. And that's an important point.

I know a few days down the road here they'll take a very close look. They'll train the camera at the end of that extended boom on that particular spot in the tiles that was dinged. I guess the presumption is we'll know a lot more then.

THAGARD: We'll know a lot more then. But I don't think anyone should be overly worried right now because it -- in looking at it yesterday, if anything, I would suspect that's less debris than they normally see.

And again, it's extraordinarily unlikely that you're going to have the kind of damage -- obviously, it is, because we had 100 flights before Columbia. So even if they had done nothing, the chances would still be good that there was no serious damage.

O'BRIEN: Your final thought as we look at that debris coming off. And NASA never promised it would be debris free, but just a final thought on the shuttle back in space, the second return to flight. You were at NASA all through that, the first accident, Challenger, and the return to flight then. What are the emotions?

THAGARD: Extraordinary. And I did stay on. In fact, I made it a point that I was going to stay on after Challenger. I'd already flown twice on Challenger before the accident. I flew three more times afterward.

When you get back to flying, it raises everyone's spirits. And I remember on that third -- my third flight, which was the third flight after we resumed flying post-Challenger -- I had a few misgivings, maybe 20 minutes before launch. But as the clock ticked down, all I could think of was, "Let's go do this. This is great."

O'BRIEN: All right. Would you go again?

THAGARD: Absolutely. In a heartbeat.

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