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Shuttle Columbia Breaks Up In Re-Entry, Part I

Aired February 1, 2003 - 09:16   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Got a little problem on the space shuttle Columbia. It's been out of communication now for the past 12 minutes. Let's take a look at a live picture of Mission Control in Houston.
As we've been telling you all this morning, it is on its way in for a landing, and flight controllers there in Houston are busy going through their no-com procedures, in other words, lack of communication from the shuttle. They've been trying to raise the space shuttle Columbia for quite some time now.

Of course, this hearkens back to the early days of the space program. If you'll recall, there was always a radio blackout when the spacecraft came in and was surrounded by the plasma, the superheated air all around it, causing those long radio blackouts.

And at this juncture, we -- I cannot tell you honestly the significance of it, except to tell you that the space shuttle Columbia was due for a landing right about now. We are watching this very closely. We'll try to get somebody on the line from Houston here in just a moment.

This is the end of a 16-day mission. As you are probably familiar with, the first Israeli astronaut flew on this mission, Ilan Ramon. They conducted a 16-day science marathon up there, including a series of experiments to look at dust particles in the Middle East, how flowers smell in space, interesting experiments about how ants were behaving in space.

You see some video which came down during that mission. That is obviously file tape.

As the time approaches for the landing, we have a lot of questions on our mind here about the space shuttle Columbia and its status, and I'm hopeful that we can get a conversation on the line here with our friends in Houston, if the control room could dial them up and we could have a conversation with them. Obviously some troubling news here about the space shuttle Columbia, as we haven't heard from it yet.

The time of landing was supposed to be right about at this moment.

The space shuttle is commanded by Rick Husband, a seven-person crew on board.

And we have a spectacular shot, by the way, of the space shuttle as it went over Dallas. I wonder if we can show that tape.

JAMES HARTSFIELD, MISSION CONTROL: This is Mission Control in Houston...

O'BRIEN: Hang on. Let's listen into James Hartsfield.

HARTSFIELD: We are instructing our controllers to follow contingency procedures. The last communications with the shuttle Columbia during its descent from orbit were at about 8:00 a.m. Central time as it was descending through the atmosphere...

O'BRIEN: OK, that's James Hartsfield...

HARTSFIELD: ... at an altitude of about 207,000 feet en route to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and a touchdown that was anticipated to occur about two and a half minutes ago.

Flight controllers received no further communications with the spacecraft after about 8:00 a.m. Central time and no further tracking data from the spacecraft was gained from CBAN racking radio at the Merit Island (ph) tracking station in Florida.

O'BRIEN: This was the 28th mission of the space shuttle Columbia, commanded by Rick Husband and seven-person crew...

HARTSFIELD: Contingency operations in effect in Mission Control require all operators to conserve all their data and logbooks and notes that have been taken, that being instructed by flight director Leroy Caine (ph), for controllers to be in following those steps and secure all information.

O'BRIEN: All right. This is very ominous type of talk coming from James Hartsfield, the public affairs officer there in Houston, almost precisely the same language we heard subsequent to the "Challenger" explosion 17 years ago this past week, preserving data, the instructions coming from the flight director there in Houston as they try to determine what has become of the space shuttle Columbia on what was, up till this point -- and we do have pictures, I'm told, of it passing over Dallas, Texas -- what was a routine entry, the entry of a space shuttle into the earth.

Let's listen to James.

HARTSFIELD: Flight director Leroy Caine has declared a contingency. Flight controllers here in Mission Control are securing all their information, notes, and data gathered from the spacecraft. The last communications with Columbia at 8:00 a.m. Central time as it was descending toward Florida for its landing, at that time about 207,000 feet above central Texas, traveling approximately 12,500 miles per hour, 1,192 miles from its touchdown at Kennedy Space Center.

O'BRIEN: Now, as you know, a brief loss of communication is part of the standard operating procedure.

HARTSFIELD: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) no communications were received with Columbia, and no tracking data received through the Merit Island tracking station. Those efforts made, the flight dynamics officer reports no objects tracked through that tracking data.

O'BRIEN: OK. We are now at approximately 9:20 Eastern time. Landing was scheduled for 9:16 Eastern time, and there are some fairly hard-and-fast rules about space shuttles and landings. And that is, once you start a landing, and it begins over the Indian Ocean with the so-called de-orbit burn, you can pretty much set your watch to them. The orbiter is a very heavy, very intricate glider, doesn't come in under power. And once that de-orbit burn begins, the landing time is preordained.

Let's get our freelance stringer on the line from Florida, Phil Chien. Phil, what can you tell us?

PHIL CHIEN, FREELANCE JOURNALIST: Well, Miles, we don't know, you know, much more than what you know. About 9:00 a.m. Eastern, we lost our communications with the shuttle. The crew is very well trained. If they lose communications with the ground, they can proceed on their own, go through all the procedures.

However, when the shuttle was coming above the horizon, the capcom in Houston, Charlie Hopague (ph), kept calling them calling the shuttle on the UHF, which is a totally separate radio -- other systems than the shuttle, and he could not get any contact.

Even if that radio was out, it would have still been tracked by the ground-based radars, which it was not. And in addition, of course, we would have heard the sonic booms, which we did not. So obviously something happened...

O'BRIEN: Phil, Phil, can you tell us where that occurred, where in the world that communication loss occurred?

CHIEN: Roughly 9:00 A.M., the shuttle would have been traveling over Texas, around the same time as you saw the video from Dallas earlier today.

O'BRIEN: All right, stand by, Phil. Let's get Kyle Herring on the line, he's public affairs officer from Houston-NASA. Kyle, what do we know?

KYLE HERRING, NASA SPOKESMAN: Well, Miles, at this point we know we lost communication somewhere around 9:00 Eastern time. That would have placed on the tracking where the shuttle would have been over the northeast portions of Texas tracking toward -- right on its ground track toward the Florida landing, of course.

O'BRIEN: All right. So what -- as part of the contingency procedures, Kyle, what is going on right now at Mission Control?

HERRING: Well, Mission Control, I mean, it's a very detailed plan, obviously. But first things to do is to pull out a contingency plan and start following that. The flight dynamics team obviously continues to try to make contact with its counterparts to see if they had seen anything.

So obviously it's a very methodical approach and very businesslike approach, even in a contingency situation.

O'BRIEN: Now, we're told that this communication loss occurred somewhere over Texas. Are you -- as part of that contingency plan, are they calling local authorities for any sort of search and rescue?

HERRING: I do not know if that's part of the contingency plan, but it would not be -- I would assume that something like that would be taking place, yes.

The only additional information that I have is. around that time we did -- some of the flight controllers did report that some of the sensor data was lost, so -- on some of the hydraulic systems and on the shuttle, and that was the only additional information that we had prior to the loss of communication.

O'BRIEN: All right. The key thing here is, the shuttle operates on hydraulics as it comes in. And the key thing to look at here are the auxiliary power units, as you well know, which power those hydraulics. Do we have any indication, Kyle, that there was any sort of failure or problem with those auxiliary power units, since they were fired up ready for the descent?

HERRING: No, we didn't have any indication of that. Like I said, the only indications we had is, we lost some sensor data on some of the hydraulic systems, we -- that would indicate, like, tire pressure, those kind of things. So when you lost that sensor data, it was not too shortly after that, I guess, that we lost the communications link.

So at that point we didn't have any data to show any other, like, APU, auxiliary power unit, data, those kind of things. So at that point we just had a total loss of communication.

O'BRIEN: All right. Kyle, I suspect you're near CNN where you are. Let's take a look at this picture that we got from one of our affiliates as the shuttle streaked over, I believe, the Dallas, Texas, area. I don't know that there's anything that you or I could discern from looking at that shot, except that I see multiple trails there, multiple trails. Reminds me a little bit of when "Mir" went down. What does that tell you?

HERRING: Well, obviously, you know, it would be sheer speculation until we had confirmation, Miles, about that. Obviously multiple targets is not something that you want to see. You know, I'd be foolish to tell you that that wasn't something that looked pretty bad.

We always hope for the best, and we're just following the contingency plans that we can at this point and trying to make any contact with folks that might be able to help us with this.

O'BRIEN: Kyle, where does it go from here, then?

HERRING: Well, we're just going to continue to try the contact the folks that can help us, find out what happened, and make any additional procedures -- following procedures that are necessary at this point under a contingency.

O'BRIEN: All right, Kyle Herring, I'll let you get back to work.

Phil Chien, I don't know if you're near a CNN monitor, but let's play that tape one more time. This is a very telling piece of videotape, and I'm hopeful that we can run this through the Tellustrator D (ph) in the control room.

Phil Chien, can you see the video where you are? Can you see CNN?

CHIEN: Unfortunately not. We're in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: All right. When -- here's what we're seeing that is very significant and what you should look at, multiple trails, multiple -- indication of multiple targets there as the space shuttle streaked over Dallas, Texas. I think that once -- it doesn't take a lot of elaboration to tell you what multiple trails and multiple targets would indicate.

Phil, anything to add on that?

CHIEN: Just that there's no doubt that we've had a bad day. You just can't lose communications with the shuttle. As you said before, everything's like clockwork with landing. It should have come across. Even if all communications were lost with the shuttle, it should have come up on the radars once it came over the Florida horizon, so...

O'BRIEN: All right, Phil, let's do this, let's, if we could, run through the scenarios here that -- We got an indication, I don't know if you could hear Kyle Herring, but he was talking about some problems with the hydraulics that might have been indicated on some of the sensors there right before communication was lost.

The shuttle is coming in without power. Auxiliary power units are actually controlling the power, generating power on them. Those auxiliary power units use a substance called hydrazine, among other things, to operate.

What are the other areas that would be high on the list of things to look at right -- as the shuttle is coming in?

CHIEN: Well, the two (UNINTELLIGIBLE) power units, as you said, they operated (UNINTELLIGIBLE) one of them (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the shuttle (UNINTELLIGIBLE) during landing (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and those are used to operate the wings and (UNINTELLIGIBLE), same as on an airplane. They (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the shuttle during land. Obviously if there was a major disaster on one of those, it would be a bad day.

The shuttle's an electrically operated vehicle. It uses three fuel cells for power. It's not likely that all three could have failed, but that would certainly be a possibility.

O'BRIEN: All right...

CHIEN: But there's no doubt something happened. O'BRIEN: ... as we look at the very distinct and obviously (UNINTELLIGIBLE) multiple targets, as is the term for NASA,, meaning pieces, what are the scenarios that we'd be looking at?


O'BRIEN: All right, we're losing Phil Chien, and hopefully we'll get his cell phone signal back.

But what is important to note here is that as the shuttle comes in, it is -- really begins a process somewhere over the Indian Ocean of slowing down from a speed of 17,500 miles an hour all the way to the landing at the runway at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center.

And as it comes in, it's a process of steep banks in a very nose- high attitude that shuttles endure in order to slow it down from its orbital speed, 17,500 miles an hour, ultimately to zero. A fair amount of stress put on a vehicle in the course of that, as you might suspect, as it goes through that tremendous braking procedure.

Now, we're talking about something that is moving at a speed, Mach 25, 25 times the speed of sound, six or seven times faster than a rifle bullet. And that particular structure endures a tremendous amount of stress.

Let's get back -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Kyle Herring back on the line. Kyle Herring is public affairs officer for NASA in Houston.

Kyle, what can you tell us?

HERRING: Nothing new, Miles, that I can report to you at this point, you know, still maintaining the same posture that we were in just moments ago. So there's really nothing new at this point that I can pass on to you.

O'BRIEN: All right. Is -- give as sense, Kyle, with your familiarity of this, as a shuttle comes in for reentry, the sorts of stresses, as we look at this tape one more time from our affiliate WFAA. Streaking across Dallas, you see what looks like a streaking comet, a meteor. And then all of a sudden, right at that point -- I don't know if you saw it, right as it hit that -- went behind that pole, multiple targets there, multiple streaks.

Give us a sense of the kind of stress it would be enduring at that point, Kyle, going about 14,000 miles an hour or so?

HERRING: Well, just based on my experience with the shuttle reentry, you're usually somewhere around 250,000, 300,000 feet in altitude at that point. So you're back in the earth's atmosphere. That reentry into the atmosphere really occurs about 400,000, feet and that's typically out over the Pacific Ocean.

Then the shuttle basically -- its high-speed reentry, at that point you're probably going somewhere around six times, seven times the speed of sound, maybe. And there's a series of high-speed banked turns that are made by the computers to slow the vehicle down...

O'BRIEN: All right...

HERRING: ... basically put the underside of the orbiter into the direction of travel to slow it down.

O'BRIEN: Kyle, watch this tape with me, WFAA gave this to us. And look, right at that point, significant difference right there, don't you agree?

HERRING: Oh, definitely. I mean, it's definitely something that occurred that we obviously at this point don't know what that is that caused this.

O'BRIEN: And we're talking about stuff that we have here exclusively as we watch this, very distinct. And do you recall seeing the Mir reentry, Kyle? It's very reminiscent of that.

HERRING: Yes, it's very similar to what would occur with a targeted reentry of something that was like a progress vehicle that we send away from the station to burn up in the atmosphere. Mir's reentry, Skylab's, and anything like that, yes.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's talk for a moment about the contingencies which the crew trains for ad nauseam in Houston, which are -- is bailout. What would be a scenario? If something was going wrong at this point, what are the options for the crew getting out if they need to?

HERRING: Well, I'm afraid, Miles, that there is not really an option at this altitude. The bailout procedures that are in place for a shuttle, either during or after an engine problem on launch or on reentry, are bailout procedures that would take place or be in effect below about 20 -- 30 to -- 20,000 to 30,000 feet or so.

So much, much lower than what you're seeing here.

O'BRIEN: And we were -- you say we're talking 200,000 feet at least there, about six times the speed of sound.

But what we're also talking about here, Kyle, when you look at all the forces and stresses on a space shuttle from launch all the way to landing, we talk about max Q on liftoff, when the maximum dynamic pressure on the shuttle. When is the -- when does it encounter the most stress? At launch, landing? Is this the period right here that we're seeing, this tape?

HERRING: Well, launch is probably among the most stressful during that max Q period, because that's when there's the most aerodynamic pressure on the vehicle, the -- in that altitude range on the way uphill. Typically there's not a max Q, if you will, on the way down. There are stresses on the order of about maybe two Gs or so when you're making the big, wide, sweeping turn approaching the runway.

But at this point, there aren't any stresses in terms of G-forces that you're really feeling, because you're still pretty high up in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. So it's not very thick, if you will, at that altitude.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's -- we should tell you, Kyle, that while you were talking, received -- we're receiving some calls from viewers. Palestine, Texas, is the dateline, where -- about 100 miles south of Dallas, I'm told. And there are reports there of a loud impact. Let's leave that at that for just a moment. Kyle, if you could stand by.

Phil Chien, just -- could you describe -- you're right there at the shuttle landing facility -- describe the scene for me, please. I guess we've lost Phil Chien.

I should point out the crew, the commander, Rick Husband, the pilot, William "Willie" McCool, mission specialist one David Brown, mission specialist two, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, mission specialist three, Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist four, and the payload specialist, the first Israeli ever to fly in space on this 16- day mission, Ilan Ramon.

The tail end of what was a relatively flawless mission, scientific mission, 16 days in orbit. What we're seeing here is very ominous indeed. These are pictures which tell the story that is clearly the shuttle breaking up as it passes south of Texas, Dallas, Texas, near Palestine, as it was coming in. Communication was lost about 15 minutes prior to its anticipated landing at the Kennedy Space Center at 9:16 a.m. Eastern local time.

Kyle Herring, search and rescue forces in motion yet? Can you confirm that? (UNINTELLIGIBLE), we've lost Kyle Herring. We can only presume that those same calls that we are getting here are being received at -- with the authorities.

And we're joined by a veteran space shuttle astronaut, a man who spent several months on the space station Mir, a man who has experience before and after the "Challenger" disaster with NASA and the shuttle.

Norm Thagard, good to you have with us.

NORM THAGARD, FORMER NASA, MIR ASTRONAUT: Thanks, Miles, good to talk with you.

O'BRIEN: Norm, can you see these pictures? Are you watching CNN?

THAGARD: Well, I could bring it up, but I'm up, in fact, upstairs where I don't have a TV. If we get a break, I can go to the TV.

O'BRIEN: Well, Norm, as you well know, because you were with me that night, it's practically a carbon copy of the picture we saw from the South Pacific when the space shuttle Mir came down, multiple targets, multiple trails behind those targets. Where does that leave the experts and engineers? What do they do? THAGARD: It almost certainly, I would think, Miles, means that the shuttle broke up. It is an electronically controlled vehicle. And if it for some reason loses control at those speeds, it's going to be a bad situation.

O'BRIEN: Let -- yes, let's back up and talk about what could cause a space shuttle to break up at this juncture in its flight. We've been talking a little bit about how it's hydraulically controlled. We know what hydraulics are, obviously.

But the shuttle doesn't have any operative engines as it comes in. So they fire up what are called auxiliary power units, run on hydrazine, which power those hydraulics. And those are kind of -- well, those machines are something you have to really be careful about, right, Norm?

THAGARD: They run at very high speeds, I think something like 80,000 rpm, and it is possible for, I guess, one to fly apart. However, there are three of them, and you can certainly operate with the loss of one. And some of the rockets are used right down to almost the last, just as the shuttle starts to go subsonic. So some of the steering rockets or attitude rockets continue to fire even down close to ground.

O'BRIEN: OK, so those steering rockets, how much -- would they be -- they would be used at this juncture, then? We're talking about the rockets that are typically used on orbit to maneuver the shuttle. They would be used in the higher altitudes where there's less air passing over the aerodynamic surfaces of the shuttle, correct?

THAGARD: That's correct. And as the shuttle gets lower and lower, I think various of those rockets start to be deselected, and then finally before the shuttle, or right around the time it goes subsonic, none of the rockets are being used anymore.

O'BRIEN: I see. Let's go through what they call in NASA, and what they will undoubtedly begin even as we speak, as they preserve their data, that rather ominous statement coming out of Mission Control, which you will recall, of course, from the "Challenger" days, the fault tree, where they try to figure out -- what -- how -- what are they going to be looking at? Try to help us prioritize how they would try to sift through this, what's happened here.

THAGARD: I would assume that they all had data up until some moment, and there are various systems in which the failure could have occurred. It could have been in the control system, it could have been a failure in the hydraulics, as you mentioned. So they'll have the experts in the various areas looking at their data to see if they can figure out what happened when.

O'BRIEN: Norm, you were involved "Challenger" and the investigation, were you not?

THAGARD: I played some role in that. I was not on the board that looked at it, but I think most of us in the astronaut office wound up playing some role. And among other things, I was the casualty assistance officer for the Scobee family.

O'BRIEN: I see. Give me, as we hearken back to that as the template for what goes on now, first of all, the first concern is the crew, clearly. Search and rescue possibilities, chances of survivability, let's run through that.

Norm? Have we lost Norm? Norm Thagard? OK, we've lost Norm Thagard. I apologize for that. We'll try to get him back.

All right. It would be nice if we could -- if I could prevail upon the control room to bring up some of the pictures of the crew at some point on the -- at least on the computer. And we're working on that right now, and we'll get that for you in just a minute.

Seven-person crew led by Rick Husband on his second flight. Willie McCool, his first. David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to fly in space.

And what we've been seeing, courtesy of WFAA, our affiliate in Dallas, is the unmistakable signs of a vehicle breaking up at an altitude of about 200,000 feet.

Let's listen to James Hartsfield, Mission Control-Houston, for a minute, if we can.

HARTSFIELD: Search and rescue teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have been alerted to the shuttle contingency. Any debris that is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area should be avoided and may be hazardous due to toxic substances used as power on the shuttle. Also debris could be reported to NASA.

O'BRIEN: All right, there you have it, James Hartsfield, public affairs officer sitting in the console there in Mission Control in Houston, giving some advice, which we'd like you all to heed, please. If you're in that part of Texas, and you see some piece of debris from the space shuttle "Columbia," we invite you to stay away from it. Call the local authorities, please.

Barbara Starr with us at the Pentagon, or in Washington, anyhow. Barbara, what do you have for us?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Miles, we can now tell you that the Bush administration is about to convene what they call a domestic event conference. This will be an interagency conference between all domestic and military agencies that will be involved in the next step, whatever that may be.

We can tell you we've spoken to some Pentagon officials this morning. There is a lot of distress about this situation. They are about to, as we say, to convene a domestic event conference. This is what happens in the federal government when there is a serious domestic event in the country.

We can also tell you that there would be every expectation, as events unfold here, that the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado and the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, will be involved in whatever the next step is, trying to reconstruct through their satellite and communication systems what may have happened here, working with NASA on that.

Events appear to be moving very rapidly, but we are told that this conference is about to take place shortly, and they will begin planning for whatever the next step may be, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, we will be watching that. Barbara, keep us posted on that. Does that occur in the Situation Room at the White House?

STARR: Well, these things typically, being interagency, occur across Washington. We expect it to be partially in the Situation Room, in the Pentagon's National Military Command Center, and in other key government agencies. They are capable of conducting these conferences not only by secure telephone but by secure videophone, and...

O'BRIEN: Barbara, Barbara, I'm going to have you pause for a minute. Let's listen to James Hartsfield for one minute. Listen, listen.

HARTSFIELD: As communications was lost with the space shuttle "Columbia" during its descent from orbit en route to landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the last communications with "Columbia" occurred at about 8:00 a.m. Central time as it was above the north central Texas area at an altitude of approximately 200,000 feet.

Any debris that is located in the vicinity of the north central Texas area that may be related to the shuttle contingency should be reported to local law enforcement, who will then report to NASA. It should be avoided. Debris could be potentially hazardous due to toxic substances that are used as propellants on the space shuttle.

Flight controllers here are securing all information and notes and data pertinent to the scheduled descent and landing of the shuttle today as part of contingency procedures. Search and rescue teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have been alerted.

O'BRIEN: We are listening to James Hartsfield, public affairs officer for NASA in Houston.

And if you're just joining us...

HARTSFIELD: Any debris that is located in the north central Texas vicinity that may be related to the space shuttle contingency should be reported to local law enforcement authorities and should be avoided, as it may be hazardous due to toxic substances that are used as propellants for the space shuttle.

O'BRIEN: James Hartsfield in Houston offering up a word of warning to those who might encounter debris from the space shuttle "Columbia." And if you're just joining us, the picture you are seeing right now tells the story. A hundred miles south of Dallas, Texas, at an altitude of 200,000 feet, the space shuttle "Columbia" on its 28th mission broke up in flight, six times the speed of sound.

Take a look at the crew just briefly, if you could. There's the commander, Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, pilot Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon of Israel, Laurel Clark, and finally David Brown. Seven crew members on board the space shuttle "Columbia."

Let's go to a witness from Palestine, Texas. Bob Multer, what did you hear, what did you see?

BOB MULTER, PALESTINE, TEXAS, RESIDENT: Well, approximately 8:09 this morning, the entire house started to shake. And living in close proximity to a railroad track, we thought -- and with chemicals traveling, I thought it might have been an explosion. So I walked outside and immediately saw this spiral, long spiral in the air. And it was headed in a southeast direction from where we're at. And the rumbling continued -- it was very intense -- for approximately two minutes and then just stopped.

And about that point, the trail disappeared down towards the sunrise.

O'BRIEN: Bob Multer, I'm sorry, I've been -- I've got a lot of things going on here. But you didn't see, you just heard things? Is that accurate to say?

MULTER: No, we saw the spirals in the sky.

O'BRIEN: Spirals, OK.

MULTER: There were spirals like a high-flying jet, except it wasn't in a straight line.

O'BRIEN: Right. And did you see multiple targets, if you will, pieces?

MULTER: Yes, it was like a wide band that was moving. And I would say that -- and of course it was difficult to -- by looking up, but I would say within the spiral, it was a wide wave as it was moving. It was not in a straight line.

O'BRIEN: Right. Now, did you have any sense of what was happening at that point?

MULTER: None whatsoever. In fact, I called my wife at work and asked her, you know, Did you hear and feel that? And she said yes. I said, Did you see it in the sky? She said no. And she said, Turn on the TV. So I turned on the local station, there was nothing there. I immediately switched over to CNN, and within one minute, of course, you came up with the breaking news. And I realized what it was.

O'BRIEN: Now, did -- what exactly did you hear, Mr. Multer? MULTER: It would be a sound that would be very similar to a tornado, if you've ever experienced that. It's a very loud, intense roar, and it stays at a certain pitch. There was no variance in it whatsoever. And as I say, it was very loud, and then it diminished as the trail continued further southeast.

But it was loud enough and it was low enough, because as I say, this trail was extremely wide, that it shook the building completely, the house. And I would say that it shook the house for a good minute.

O'BRIEN: And how close do you think it landed to where you are?

MULTER: It's difficult for me to say. As I say, it was headed southeast towards the horizon, then I lost it into the sun.

O'BRIEN: Yes. All right, Bob Multer, thank you very much for that, we appreciate it.

Norm Thagard back with us, a veteran shuttle astronaut, veteran of a long stay aboard the space station Mir.

Norm, when last we spoke, and we lost you, we were talking about using, you know, "Challenger" as a template here as to what happens in the immediate aftermath of something like this. What's going on right now?

THAGARD: I'm sure there is some disbelief, but the pictures and all the circumstances tell you that you know what happened, and so everyone now is being professional at NASA. They'll be looking at their systems, all of the flight controllers, and they'll try and come up with the cause and go from there.

O'BRIEN: I imagine professionalism is put to the test in so many ways in a juncture like this.

THAGARD: Yes, well, I think all the folks at NASA are professional no matter what, but you feel numb. I know I did, and I know I do now.

O'BRIEN: Yes. What -- it's easy to -- for the layperson to think about space shuttle missions as being routine. But anybody who knows a little something about this would tell you just the opposite, wouldn't they?

THAGARD: They would tell you that, because rockets are rockets. Anybody that sits on top of a rocket knows there's a risk involved. And even on entry, although we don't think of that as being nearly as dangerous as ascent, it still has to go perfectly, because you're -- you start out at 17,500 miles an hour, and you pick up a little speed until you start slowing down in the atmosphere. So it has to work well.

O'BRIEN: Well, you mention that point, because we've had conversations before where you've told me, really, the only part of the mission you sweat is the first eight and a half minutes, the rise to orbit, and after that things, relatively speaking, are, you know -- and given where you are, are relatively safe.

The prospect of something happening on descent, on reentry, how much did that weigh on your mind when you flew?

THAGARD: Not very much. Certainly you are mindful that the shuttle's got to be in the right attitude and the systems have to be working, but there's so much redundancy, and since you are not in a situation where you have very powerful rockets that can malfunction in a second and kill you, that's not the situation with entry.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Norm, stay on the line, please, if you will. And by the way, have you -- are you near CNN? Have you -- are you seeing these pictures yet? Norm, are you still there?

THAGARD: I'm here, Miles. I'm watching it on TV.

O'BRIEN: OK. What does that tell you when you see that?

THAGARD: Well, it's breaking up.


Let's go to Jerry Linenger on the line. Jerry, I don't know if you're home in northern Michigan, but that's where Jerry's home is. Jerry is a shuttle veteran also a Mir veteran, retired astronaut, as well.

Jerry, what are your thoughts as you look at this scene? And what might be going on right now for NASA, for the professionals, for search and rescue?

JERRY LINENGER, FORMER MIR ASTRONAUT: Well, you know, it's a horrible thing. And I'm sure they're just trying to put the parts together and try to reconstruct things so it never happens again. You know, you got to get to the root of what happened here.

O'BRIEN: Yes. What -- we were just talking to Norm about this concept that the most dangerous period of time is the first eight and a half minutes of the mission, the point where the rockets are firing and all the things are exploding behind you. How much -- how many scenarios do the crews and their simulations run through on reentry?

LINENGER: Yes, just -- you know, in -- I don't want to say infinite, but, I mean, you train and you train and you train. But I can tell you, reentry, you know, the normal reentry kind of sounds like a locomotive train coming up behind you, very dynamic, you're inside a fireball, plasma collapsing around you.

It's like the worst turbulence you've ever been on in an airplane. So it is very dynamic. And if you lose your orientation in space and the tiles aren't pointing in the right direction, you know, you get what you're seeing here today.

O'BRIEN: Jerry, let's listen to James Hartsfield for a minute out at Mission Control. HARTSFIELD: ... pertinent to the descent of the space shuttle "Columbia" this morning from orbit. The last communications were received from the space shuttle "Columbia" at approximately 8:00 a.m. Central time as it was at an altitude of about 200,000 feet above north central Texas, en route to a planned landing at the Kennedy Center in Florida at 8:16 a.m. Central time.

Search and rescue teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth have been alerted to the space shuttle contingency. Any debris that may be located in the Dallas-Fort Worth vicinity should be avoided and may be hazardous due to the toxic nature of propellants used on board the shuttle and should be reported to local law enforcement authorities.

To repeat, any debris that is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area should be avoided, as it may be hazardous due to toxic substances used as propellant on board the space shuttle and should be reported to local law enforcement authorities.

O'BRIEN: All right. With that...

HARTSFIELD: This is Mission Control-Houston.

O'BRIEN: With that word of caveat from James Hartsfield, Mission Control-Houston.

Jerry Linenger, what goes through -- on the one hand, you're a technical person, you're an engineer, and I know that you're -- well, you're a medical doctor as well. But you go through sort of the technicalities of this, but the other side of you is sort of -- it takes your breath away, doesn't it? Jerry, are you there?

LINENGER: Yes, I'm with you.

O'BRIEN: What are your thoughts?

LINENGER: Well, it's -- it's just a horrible thing. Can't -- nothing worse.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I'm going to leave it at that for just a moment. Stay with us if you can.

Ricky Lufkin is on the line with us. He's from about 100 miles south of Dallas, where we believe the debris of the space shuttle "Columbia," oldest orbiter in NASA's fleet, the one that flew first in April of 1981, and flew its last mission this time, the 28th mission, clearly, from this videotape from WFAA, breaking up into several pieces over southern Texas.

Do we have Mr. Lufkin? I'm sorry.


O'BRIEN: I'm sorry, Ricky Calbert. Ricky Calbert, are you there?

CALBERT: Yes. O'BRIEN: What did you see, what did you hear, sir?

CALBERT: Well, it was about 10 till 8:00 this morning, Central time, our time, and we -- my wife and I heard a rumble kind of building, and it eventually got to where our house was shaking. I got up and went to the -- to our back door to see if I could see anything. I didn't see anything. It lasted for maybe a minute and a half, and it slowly tapered off.

So that's when I went into the living room and turned the TV on to see if I could find anything, to see if maybe they were reporting anything on the local news.

O'BRIEN: How would you describe what you saw then?

CALBERT: No, I didn't...

O'BRIEN: It's all what you heard, then?

CALBERT: Yes, yes, just what I heard.

O'BRIEN: OK. And it was very distinct kind of rumble to it?

CALBERT: Oh, yes, oh, yes. If you live -- I mean, it's just like somebody else was saying, I don't know if they were talking about the way this sounded or not, but if you live close to a railroad track, I mean, extremely close, like your back door, that's what it sounded like, and that's what it felt like. My entire house was shaking, and it's not a small house.

O'BRIEN: Wow, OK. All right.

CALBERT: So I tried to call in as soon as I could. It took about an hour for me to find the number, but...

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, we appreciate your call and insights for us.

Let's get CNN's Jeanne Meserve with us. She covers homeland security for us.

The sad truth is that in this day and age, and particularly with an Israeli on board, one of the things that is considered is the possibility of terrorism. Jeanne, that seems remote right now, but what exactly are your sources telling you?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I've had a conversation with an administration official who says based on the information we have right now, it is, quote, "highly unlikely" that this was related to terrorism.

This administration official noting, amongst other things, that the shuttle was at the time of this apparent breakup at a very, very high altitude, mentioned perhaps because there have been various things written and said about the possible vulnerability of aircraft to weaponry like shoulder-fired missiles, which might be in the hands of terrorists.

The multi-agency investigation, of course, will be conducted, and its findings will be pored over by officials involved in homeland security and terrorism, but reiterating once again, this official saying it is premature for anyone to jump to any sort of conclusion that this might have been a terrorist event, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jeanne Meserve, thank you very much.

And we should point out, and, Jeanne, you can amplify on this if you want, I mean, for example, if you're running through these scenarios, and as long as we're in this area, let's run through them, you know, surface-to-air missile, Stinger-type thing, would have a maximum range of maybe 10,000 or 15,000 feet. The space shuttle is traveling extremely fast, six times the speed of sound, at about 200,000 feet.

And it's hard to imagine anything that would be of a terrorist nature that could be involved, correct?

MESERVE: Exactly the point, that this spacecraft was just at too high an altitude for anything of that sort, apparently, to have been a factor in what's happened here.

O'BRIEN: All right. Jeanne Meserve, thank you very much.

Norm Thagard, are you still with us? All right. He's -- we're going to queue him up.

And just want to recap for those of you who might just now be tuning in, you are looking at what is the final moments of the space shuttle "Columbia" on its 28th flight. First flew April of 1981. You saw a very specific moment there, where some added smoke came out of the trail there, that single trail, and then subsequent to that, as you look in here, you'll see it develops into multiple -- Let me try to clear that out for a second.

It develops into multiple streams, multiple trails, like a series of comets. You see them breaking up there? You see those points there. Clearly there was something that happened. It was almost like a puff of smoke that I saw.

If we could -- could we roll that back one more time, and I'll try to identify that point for you where we saw kind of a burst of smoke which was left behind as -- prior to that. And I think it was probably -- well, you can see here quite clearly, there are some pieces there. I think this might be after -- but I...

Oh, there it is, right there. See that smoke? See there -- there was a flash and then a puff of smoke. That was clearly some kind of explosion, probably a secondary explosion, because what you saw first were those initial pieces that came off for a brief period of time, maybe two, three seconds. Then a burst, then the smoke that went behind it.

And then shortly thereafter, as you see, multiple pieces being tracked there very clearly in this shot.

And as I say, it reminds me so much of seeing the space shuttle Mir as it came down to earth, coming down in multiple pieces, streaking down that way. Very -- even to a layperson, this is quite clearly a breakup of the vehicle.

Norm Thagard, your thoughts? Is Norm there? OK. Who do we have?

LINENGER: Jerry's here.

O'BRIEN: I'm sorry?

LINENGER: Jerry Linenger.

O'BRIEN: Jerry. Are you able to see CNN yet? Have you been...

LINENGER: Yes, I am.

O'BRIEN: All right.

LINENGER: I've been watching.

O'BRIEN: All right. Did you -- did...

LINENGER: I think you're exactly right in what you're analyzing. I would say it's mostly secondary things, the puff of smoke and that. You've got a lot of materials. You're coming through a lot of friction, lot of heat. And if things are not protected by the tiles, they're going to heat up. And any chemicals on board or leftover rocket fuel, anything of that nature, is going to ignite.

O'BRIEN: OK. I wasn't able to hear a lot of what you said there, they were talking to me, Jerry, I hope you understand.

LINENGER: No problem.


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