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Space Shuttle Columbia Breaks Up in Re-Entry, Part II

Aired February 1, 2003 - 10:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: But there is that flash. You want to offer any sort of supposition there?
JERRY LINENGER, FORMER ASTRONAUT: Yes, I would say just what you said. It's very dynamic, and when you're coming in, you're heating everything up thousands of degrees. And so I think those are secondary explosions. Obviously the primary event already took place. That's just debris coming in, and it's going to burn up, and, you know, that's what you're seeing there.

O'BRIEN: All right. There's that shot, that unmistakable shot that we're telling you about here.

We also -- we've gotten some still pictures in. We're going to try to get those on the air to you. One of our viewers sent them to us.

But let's recap once again, if we could. The space shuttle "Columbia" was supposed to land at the Kennedy Space Center 9:16 a.m. Eastern time, 45 minutes ago. That has not happened. What has happened is what you see here. Right around the 9:00 Eastern hour, as it was streaking across southern Texas -- well, not southern Texas, central Texas, 100 miles south of Dallas -- it broke up at a speed of about six times the speed of sound, at an altitude of about 200,000 feet, broke up into numerous pieces.

I count one, two, three, four, five significant streaks there, as you look down there. You can see those streaks, it's quite obvious what we're talking about there.

And at this juncture, we've received several phone calls from people in the area of Palestine, Texas. They have seen and heard what has got to be a horrifying sight and sound, the sound of pieces of the space shuttle "Columbia" plummeting to earth at speeds that would be akin to a bullet shot out of a rifle.

The crew on board had spent 16 days in orbit. It was a scientific mission, which was perhaps most notable for the fact that it carried an Israeli astronaut, the first Israeli ever to fly in space, Ilan Ramon.

And the mission appeared to go well. There was one thing that engineers were looking at, at launch. I'm going to try to get you some tape of it. There was a piece of debris which came off the shuttle. I'm going to bring in a model here. There was a piece of debris -- this fuel tank here, this orange fuel tank, is covered with -- it's insulating foam, it's kind of a rigid insulating foam. And the reason it's got that foam -- as I turn to this camera -- I'm going to hold it up a little higher for you here -- the reason it's got that foam is, inside here is the coldest substance on earth, liquid hydrogen. Ice forms at the top here. And that insulation is there to try to prevent as much of that as possible.

The problem is, as the shuttle rises to orbit, that ice breaks off. It can strike pieces of the shuttle as it goes, causing some damage to what is the fragile outer skin of the shuttle. Space shuttle "Columbia" is covered by more than 20,000 fragile ceramic tiles. Those tiles are critical, because they are the -- what carry the heat load as the space shuttle comes in. We're talking in excess of 2,000 degrees, and it is, after all, an aluminum airframe underneath all those tiles.

There was a piece of debris which struck the shuttle as it came off. Was it a piece of foam, was it a piece of ice? Engineers were looking at it. They determined, looking very closely at these high- speed, very close, close cameras that they have, that this is not a significant issue, was not anything that caused any sort of problem for the tiles, or what is right along here is a substance called carbon-carbon (ph).

Let me see if I can tilt that for you. There you go. Right on the leading edge of the wing, these are some of the hottest places on the space shuttle. And this is made of what's called carbon-carbon. It's a substance which is able to withstand tremendous amounts of heat, is very hard, and, given where it is and what it does, it has to maintain that airfoil, because the shuttle is, after all, a glider as it comes in for landing.

It is a very, very important piece of the pie here. And if something fell on that and caused some damage, who knows what the implications of that might be?

I'm not sure who we have left on the beeper line right now to -- Who -- All right. We understand that President Bush is being briefed at Camp David as we speak. We have had Jerry Linenger and Norm Thagard on the line. I just don't know which one is available to us right now. Who's -- who is available to us, please? I have nobody right now, I guess.

We got -- well, we have some new pictures coming in. I don't know where they come from. All right.

Let's take a look at this launch that I was just telling you about, with the piece of debris. If we can run that through the telestrator, that would be very helpful. I see you have it circled there. All right.

Now, take a look inside the red circle there. Got this very, very slow. Look at that piece, right there. What was that? We don't know. The engineers looked very closely at that and looked at it -- maybe that -- I'm actually not sure I'm seeing it just now. Dave Santuz (ph), you might have to help me, our producer. Help me identify it. It took him a long time, looking at it, to get a sense of what we're talking about.

But there was something that fell off. The question was, what did it do? I talked to some people at Kennedy Space Center, they said, This is not something of grave concern to us, because we don't think it caused any damage. And they have much better cameras than what you're seeing here that can really, really home in on this and give you a sense of what's going on.

They told us that it was nothing to worry about. And the only reason they were investigating it is -- and this was the words of the engineer I spoke with, was that, We had nothing else to work on, because everything else was running so flawlessly.

Jerry Linenger back on the line with us. Jerry Linenger, shuttle veteran, veteran of Mir, debris falling off that external tank. And I don't want to get too far down this road of speculation here. But that is something that is treated with great seriousness, isn't it?

Well, I guess we don't have Jerry.

If you could help me out, tell me who we have on the line. All right.

I will continue on with my soliloquy as we look at these pictures, coming from WFAA, of multiple targets streaking across central Texas. Palestine, Texas, is the place. And it occurred about 15 minutes before the anticipated landing of the space shuttle "Columbia." And that should give you a sense of the speed, 15 minutes prior to landing, it's over Texas. This is a fast-moving vehicle, and still at a very high attitude, some 200,000 feet. Commercial airliner, 35,000 feet, 40,000 maximum. So five times higher than you would ever fly in a commercial airliner.

And many, many times faster, six or seven times faster.

All right. Jerry Linenger is back with us.

Jerry, I was talking a little bit about this piece of debris which they're looking very closely at on ascent. That's a serious concern, isn't it?

LINENGER: Yes, Miles, there's -- you know, you got a tremendous speed and vibration, and obviously launch is something I think everyone knows how dynamic that is. But usually it's a large hunk of ice that can fall off, and you're worried about it hitting part of the orbiter itself, possibly one of the tiles or some of the insulation material.

And then during reentry, you've got some major heat buildup, and so you need those tiles.

O'BRIEN: And these tiles, you know, there have been several cases. You go back to some of the early shuttle missions, before they had wrung out all the details on how to adhere these tiles. I remember it was S.T.S. three or four, third or fourth shuttle mission, multiple tiles fell off because basically what happened was, moisture got in, froze on orbit, popped those tiles off.

And I do recall on one mission where they actually trained a spy satellite on the shuttle "Columbia" to see if those tiles were critical tiles. Some tiles are more important than other tiles, aren't they?

LINENGER: They are over, you know, components that you absolutely need, say control actuators, things like that. So yes, some are more important than others, but you'd rather have 100 percent there during reentry.

And again, if they looked at it hard, they probably had some very good filming during the launch to make sure that it wasn't a problem. And we would have heard about it probably in more detail. But of course, they're going to be looking at everything.

O'BRIEN: All right. And I don't want to spend too much time going down what is an area of speculation in any case at this point anyway. But I wanted to point that out to our viewers to give the context to -- the kinds of things that will be discussed as this investigation begins.

Jerry, I hope you're still watching CNN. I'm going to show you some still photos that one of our viewers sent us. Take a look at this first shot. This comes from Adam. I don't have Adam's last name. But, Adam, I thank you for it.

If we can put the SP103 on the air, please. And I'll show you what -- this is -- comes from Texas. And if you look -- can we put that through the telestrator as well so I can point out where things are? Trying to get that worked out, as soon as we get that -- But as -- what you can see, if you can see my pointer there -- OK, right here in the upper center of your screen, that is the shuttle "Columbia," streaking across the sky.

I'd been exhorting viewers all morning to go out and take a peek. You'll notice one tail, OK? Now, this is clearly in the order of them taking. This is very distinct. And this, I am presuming, is the next photo. And what you see very, very clearly here is piece number one, piece number two. All right. That's picture number two.

Now, as we continue on, you see -- it's harder to make this out, but what we're seeing here is -- it looks like multiple pieces. This could be out of order. That might have occurred before the previous one. But you'll see what are -- what amount to a, you know, bunch of little dots there. Those are significant pieces that we're seeing that are superheated.

Let's listen to James Hartsfield in Houston for a minute, shall we?

HARTSFIELD: ... no communications or tracking data was received from "Columbia" since that time. Search and rescue forces have been alerted in the north central Texas vicinity and eastern Texas. Any persons in those areas reporting debris should avoid any debris that may be associated with the space shuttle's contingency, as it may be hazardous and toxic due to the toxic nature of propellants used aboard the shuttle. Any such debris that is located should also be reported as quickly as possible to local law enforcement agencies.

Again, a space shuttle contingency has been declared in Mission Control. Flight controllers here are securing all information and data pertinent to today's descent by the space shuttle "Columbia"...

O'BRIEN: James Hartsfield...

HARTSFIELD: ... the last communications from which were received at approximately 8:00 a.m. Central time.

O'BRIEN: James Hartsfield, who is sitting in one of those consoles there in Mission Control. You can't see him right now, but what you're seeing is a group of people who are -- have got to be a fair amount of shock, astonishment, and deep sadness in the room right now.

But, as is their job, they must now continue the process and begin what is the early stages of an investigation into what went wrong.

Let's look one more time -- I wanted to show you that last picture received from our viewer just to give you a sense -- I've been showing you progression shots, if we could go back to SP103, please. I can show you -- zoomed in, and you can see down here -- let's give you the -- a sense of -- the -- there's a spot there, spot there, spot there, I -- three -- I don't know, more -- four, five, six distinct targets there, if you will. That's a bit of a euphemism.

In any case, that is the final remnants of the space shuttle "Columbia."

Let's remind you of the crew and tell you who was there. The commander, Rick Husband, he was flying his second shuttle mission, his first as a commander, colonel in the United States Air Force, and, you know, this is the stuff of boyhood dreams. Rick Husband always wanted to do what he was doing at that moment we just told you about. Born in July of 1957.

Willie McCool, shuttle pilot, selected by NASA in 1996, gone through the training, and this was his first mission, commander in the United States Navy.

Kalpana Chawla, this is -- was her second mission, S.T.S. 87 was her first back in 1987. She was born in India and is a U.S. citizen. Liked to do aerobatics in tail-wheel (ph) airplanes, among other things. Ph.D.

David Brown, up next. David Brown, born in 1956, in April. Also his first flight, a captain in the United States Navy. He was a mission specialist, which means he wasn't in the front two seats flying, but has to his credit 2,700 flight hours, 1,700 in high- performance military aircraft. And his parents reside in Virginia.

Michael Anderson, on his second flight. S.T.S. 89 was his first, back in January of '98. He visited the Mir space station at that time. And he was selected by NASA in 1994, mission specialist. Born December '59, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force.

Laurel Clark, also a mission specialist. This was a busy scientific mission. They used a thing called the double spacehab module, couple of school bus-sized -- about the size of a school bus scientific lab. She was very involved in this as a medical doctor and a commander in the United States Navy. Hailed from Iowa. Was flying her first flight.

A fair amount of rookies on this particular one.

And then the one that captured a lot of our attention on liftoff in particular, especially because of the concerns for security, Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli air force, who had a very, very decorated career as an F-16 fighter, including a raid in the mid-'80s on an Iraqi nuclear reactor, which was taken out by the Israeli air force. That was never publicly officially confirmed, but we got that from sources that he was one of the people who took out that nuclear facility in Iraq.

He became the first Israeli to fly in space, 3,000 hours of flight time in A-4s and F-16s and the like.

There you see the full crew in their suits. And I'll just point out something about these suits. They're called launch and reentry suits, pumpkin suits they call them. I guess it's obvious why they call them that. They are full pressure suits. They put those helmets on when they come in, and those pressure suits are designed to allow them to withstand a sudden decompression, lock -- loss of oxygen, or pressure inside the crew module, which is kind of a -- almost a self- contained module inside the space shuttle.

All right. We have another witness. I'm just going to finish my thought here.

It is perhaps not widely known, but there is no way for the crew to eject from a space shuttle. First couple of missions, there were ejection seats for the pilot and co-pilot. They could have punched out, literally exploding right through the -- kind of the roof, if need be. But it was not -- determined not practical to come up with an ejection system that worked for seven people.

And thus, a lot of it was -- had to do with weight and money, quite frankly. There was never an ejection system that was designed or built into the space shuttle.

Crew trained for some evacuation bailout procedures, but as we heard from Kyle Herring of NASA just a little while ago, 200,000 feet, Mach 6, there was nothing any crew member could do in that situation in order to get away from the vehicle.

Now, we have a witness from near -- Suzy Falgout, is that correct, Falgout? Suzy is on the line, she saw and heard something. She's joining us from central Texas. Suzy, go ahead.

SUZY FALGOUT, HUNTINGTON, TEXAS, RESIDENT: Yes, hi. I'm in Huntington, Texas...

O'BRIEN: All right.

FALGOUT: ... in Angelina County.

O'BRIEN: All right. Well, tell me what you saw and what you heard.

FALGOUT: Approximately 9:00 this morning, we heard a tremendous rumbling sound. And the dogs immediately -- we have -- we live -- we have a horse ranch and raise horses. And the dogs went nuts. One of my guys was in the barn, and one of our horses literally jumped at him.

The place -- we had a tremendous fog. And one of the guys that worked for me just came up to me and informed me that he feels there's some rubber burning in our pasture, and he just went to go check.

Listening to the scanner, we understand that all in Moffit (ph) and San Augustine County, Nacogdoches, and Angelina County, that there's debris. Also on the scanner, probably at about 9:15, before -- well, right before CNN was announcing what, in fact, it was, the scanners were saying for the sheriffs to go ahead and if you could -- that it could have been the space shuttle. If you found anything, it was federal, to seal it off, not let anybody touch it, don't contaminate it, don't get near it.

O'BRIEN: Well, those are words to the wise, aren't they? What else have you heard on those scanners? Any sort of indications that people actually encountering debris?

FALGOUT: Well, we're hearing there's a whole bunch of debris in Moffit County, also in Jackson, we've heard. My -- actually, let me put the guy that works for me on the phone. And he just heard a whole bunch of stuff.


O'BRIEN: Hello, Benjamin Laster, go ahead. I believe we have had another witness on the line. I am sorry to the previous person, I wasn't able to hear the last part of that. Benjamin Laster, what did you see and hear?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the barn and stuff, we was feeding the horses and stuff in the barn. And the barn started shaking all of a sudden and stuff like that. And I'm riding through the pasture, fixing to go back out there. And I smell some rubber, you know, what smells like rubber, burning. But we're going -- I'm fixing to go find out, just to see if there's anything laying around and stuff.

Because they're saying not touch nothing or stuff like that. So I don't know if I'm going to have anything or not.

But here's my boss, you can talk to her.

FALGOUT: Yes, I'm sorry to do that. I thought -- he was, you know, up here and telling me all kinds of stuff. Hello?

O'BRIEN: Who did we just hear from, please?

FALGOUT: Lynn, what's your last name? That's what I thought. Lynn Hearn (ph).

O'BRIEN: OK, I apologize. I was a little confused, I didn't know you handed the phone over. Somebody was yacking at me in my ear, I apologize for that.


O'BRIEN: OK, so he smells burning rubber. He hasn't gone out to investigate (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

FALGOUT: He's going out right now. I had him stand by in case he knew of something.

O'BRIEN: Yes, OK. And now, you're just -- you're not a member of the authorities, you're a scanner listener, correct?

FALGOUT: Correct.


FALGOUT: We were woken up by this rumble. Today, we were trying to sleep in on Saturday, and we heard this -- sounded like a train going through our property. We have 240 acres, and it sounded like it was in, you know, the driveway.

O'BRIEN: Yes, yes. What's next in that part of the world? Do you have any sense of any...

FALGOUT: We're in east Texas. We're kind of in between Houston and (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: No, no, no. What I'm trying to get a sense of what's going on right now? Are you getting a sense that there's any sort of search or rescue effort under way (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

FALGOUT: Yes, yes, there's a tremendous effort under way. All the counties on the scanner, you can hear them, haven't -- they're finding debris from all over the place (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: Can -- I wonder if you could put your phone up to one of those scanners for us and keep us -- Is there a way you can do that for us, so we can hear it?

FALGOUT: I'm trying to get here.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Are they talking about it right now?

FALGOUT: Now they're not, it -- I'm not -- Earlier, there was somebody that had reported in Zavala (ph) that there was something huge. Couldn't tell because of the tremendous fog. The fog has now lifted, so any debris should be quite visible, but there was a lot of fog...

O'BRIEN: Have -- so you say it was foggy at the time, then, huh?

FALGOUT: Yes, tremendous fog.

O'BRIEN: All right.

FALGOUT: The haze was reported at one time that there was probably not even a half a mile visibility. On our property, I couldn't see very far, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: Have you heard anything on those scanners that gives you any sense that anybody was injured on the ground?

FALGOUT: I did not hear of any injuries. I only heard of a bunch of debris being found in different places. One gentleman supposedly pulled off of Highway 69 in -- near Zavala, near the lake, the fishing lake down in Zavala, because he had seen debris falling.

O'BRIEN: I see, OK. Well, would you do us a favor? Keep an open line to us, and if you would listen to those scanners for us, and if you hear anything, or if you can put a tape recorder on it so we can hear what's going on, we'd appreciate it.


O'BRIEN: All right. Stay on the line.

All right, who else who do we have with us? No response. I will assume that means nobody. So I -- let's take a...


O'BRIEN: I don't know who this is. Who is this, please?

LASTER: This is Benjamin Laster.

O'BRIEN: Benjamin. All right, good to have you with us. I'm sorry, I'm not getting a lot of guidance out here as to who is on the line, so I apologize.

Benjamin, you are from central Texas as well?

LASTER: Yes, I'm in between Seven Points and Kemp, Texas. And my wife and I -- my wife had said the shuttle would be coming over, and so my wife and I and my child went outside, and my -- along with my dad, and we seen the shuttle coming over. And as we seen it coming over, we seen a lot of light, and it looks like debris and stuff was coming off of the shuttle.

But they said, Look at the stuff coming off the shuttle. And I said, That's probably the shields on the shuttle that keep it from when it enters, not to get too hot. And so as we kept looking, we seen it out the back door, and we come to the front door, and we seen large masses of pieces coming off of the shuttle.

And as it was coming by, we also noticed -- because it seemed awful close -- a plane pretty close to it, but we didn't see any kind of impact, I mean...

O'BRIEN: All right. Benjamin, I'm sorry, can I interrupt you? Because I'm having a hard time hearing you. They keep talking to me. Did you say there was a plane nearby?

LASTER: There was a plane nearby the shuttle as it was going...

O'BRIEN: Now, I'm not talking to the producer in the control room. Please be quiet in the control room for one minute, I want to talk to Benjamin. Benjamin, you said a plane was nearby?

LASTER: It seemed like a plane was nearby, it sure did, as it was going by. And I said, Ooh, that's awful close, that's what we said, you know, the plane being that close.

O'BRIEN: What sort of plane, Benjamin?

LASTER: It looked like a commercial jet. I mean, it was...

O'BRIEN: Yes. Oh, all right. So this could have just been a coincidence seeing it. Or would you normally see a commercial jet in the area where you saw it?

LASTER: I guess, I guess you would. But not that close to the shuttle, I mean, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: When you say how close to the shuttle, how close do you mean?

LASTER: Well, I mean, looking from where I was looking, it seemed like they were awful close, and -- I mean, it just seemed like they was awful close, like it was -- it could have even been a close call, but you didn't notice anything from there.

But then after we was at -- on the front porch, we -- the house kind of shook, and we noticed a sonic boom that kind of shook the house. At least we thought it was a sonic boom. But, you know, I don't know. And then we seen a big continuous puff of vapor or smoke streamed -- come out, and then we noticed a big chunk go over, and that's what we saw.

O'BRIEN: All right, Benjamin Laster joining us from that part of central Texas.

And we should caution our viewers, and this is no reflection on Mr. Laster or anybody else we're going to be hearing from, but frequently we get witness accounts at this juncture of any incident, plane crash, whatever it may be, that do not bear themselves out.

The fact that an airplane was nearby, I should tell you that the space shuttle was at an altitude of 200,000 feet, so even if there was a commercial airliner or any sort of airplane in that area, it would have been significantly lower. So we'll just leave that at that. Thank you, Benjamin.

Let's go to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux at the White House. And apparently -- the president has been at Camp David. They've set up a bit of a task force within the government to try to go through all this and get a sense of what happened. And he will be on his way to the White House right around the noon hour to, you know, get a full -- his hands on the reins here in order to get a sense of what's going on and how to proceed, as the investigation very -- begins very early.

Now, Jeanne Meserve told us, and it's very -- I want to caution that we mention terrorism in this day and age always when things like this happen because the sad fact is that is a part of our life right now. But the initial indication that we have from Jeanne Meserve, who has -- covers homeland security for us, and from just plain common sense, is that a shuttle streaking along, as it is right now, six times the speed of sound, 200,000 feet, is not in a place where it could become a target of terrorism.

Let's go to Suzanne Malveaux at the White House now. Suzanne, tell us about what the president is doing right now.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president is heading back to the White House. As you know, he was to spend the weekend at Camp David. He was notified of the situation earlier this morning. We are told that they are trying to get as much information as possible, but they realized how serious it was.

And it was the decision -- the best decision that the president come back here to the White House to monitor the situations here.

As you can imagine, it is a very serious tone here at the White House. We have seen administration officials, we've seen staffers rushing back here once they heard the news. Obviously there's going to be a lot of activity here later in the day.

We have not been told yet whether or not there's going to be any type of formal briefing. But as you can imagine, there are certainly signs of people who are very concerned here at the White House. They are taking it very seriously.

And as I indicated before, the president is heading back here to the White House later this afternoon, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House, please keep us posted on all of this.

We've got some still photographs which we'd like to share with you. We've been showing you that video, but in some cases still photographs tell a story in a different way for us. And these come from a viewer who e-mailed them to us here.

If you take a look at this first shot, I'll highlight it, assuming it is through the telestrator now, and I'm hoping that's the case. You see the shuttle right there. What's significant about this is, that is exactly what you would expect to see, right? A bright dot, and then one -- you know, the term contrail doesn't really apply, because that's kind of streaking plasma, superheated ionized air. Don't want to get too technical with you, but that's basically what we're talking about at that altitude.

Now, I believe this next one is the next one in the series, although I'm not positive. What you see there is a very bright flash, right at the center there, clearly something very -- as NASA's term would be, extremely dynamic -- occurred at that point.

But you also see a series of little dots all around. I don't want to cover it over, so I'll take it out. But you see those little dots? That is debris. And clearly that is -- there's no mistaking what that is. That is in-flight breakup, straight and forward.

And finally -- although I'm not sure this is the correct order -- what you see are two very significant targets, right there, two big pieces, separated, breakup, 200,000 feet, six times the speed of sound.

The crew, seven people. Seven people who all dreamed of flying to space and dreamed of doing what they're doing. The crew, led by Commander Rick Husband and supported by his pilot, William "Willie" McCool.

And, as we look at more pictures, this is the WFAA tape, which shows you what I just showed you in still form.

All right. We have -- we're getting all kinds of -- Let's listen to James Hartsfield in Houston for a minute, if we could.

HARTSFIELD: ... Mission Control as the result of the loss of communication with the space shuttle "Columbia" this morning at approximately 8:00 a.m. Central Time as Columbia was descending toward a landing in Florida. At the time, Columbia was at an altitude of approximately 200,000 feet above north central Texas. No communications or tracking from Columbia has been received by Mission Control since that time.

Search and rescue authorities in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and in portions of east Texas and other pertinent areas have been alerted to the space shuttle contingency. Any debris that is found that may be related to the space shuttle's contingency should be avoided and may be hazardous due to the toxic nature of propellants that are used onboard the space shuttle. The locations of any possible debris should be reported immediately to local law enforcement authorities.

In Mission Control, flight controllers continue through contingency procedures designed to secure all information, data, and notes pertinent to today's descent of the space shuttle Columbia. This is Mission Control Houston.

O'BRIEN: All right. That was James Hartsfield in Houston, giving us an update, public affairs officer for NASA sitting in the control room. You see screen left, screen right. You see tape of the final minutes of the space shuttle Columbia on its 28th flight, coming down, the 113th shuttle mission. Greg Sowell is on the line and he is in the -- I know who he is. He's the public information officer -- that's OK. Thank you control room. I appreciate your help. Greg Sowell, public information officer, who's joining us from Nacogdoches County in Texas.

Greg, what can you tell us?

GREG SOWELL, PIO, NACOGDOCHES, TEXAS: Well, we have several pieces of debris that have been reported as coming down within the city of Nacogdoches. Each and every one that we have reported to us, we're sending officers out to stand by with. We're holding these areas secure until we receive further instructions from the federal government.

O'BRIEN: How many -- how many sites are you aware of?

SOWELL: I don't have an exact number. All I know is there are several at this point.

O'BRIEN: And do you have any sense of how -- I mean at 200,000 feet traveling that fast, I imagine the debris field could stretch for many, many miles.

SOWELL: Right.

O'BRIEN: Do you have any sense...

SOWELL: I have no idea where else. All I know is we have some within the city of Nacogdoches. And again, we're asking the public if they find it to call us if they find it and stay away from it.

O'BRIEN: Do you have any reports, Mr. Sowell, of any injuries on the ground?

SOWELL: No, not from here at this time.

O'BRIEN: OK. Is this a fairly thinly settled area?

SOWELL: Oh, well, we're a university town of approximately 30,000 people. It -- you know it's a small town, but it's not a large town. The areas that we're finding these of course are in town, but they're -- like we're finding some in the middle of the road and things like that. But we have not had any reports of any damage or any injuries as of yet.

O'BRIEN: OK. And did you see or hear anything personally?

SOWELL: No, sir, I did not.

O'BRIEN: OK. And have you heard first person accounts from people there?


O'BRIEN: OK. And give us a sense of how much assistance you're receiving from outside right now. SOWELL: Well, at this point, we're just beginning to gear up. We're fixing to activate our emergency operation center with the city and that's all that's forthcoming right now. Like I said, there are several of us doing three jobs until we get everyone together.

O'BRIEN: And have you had any contact with federal authorities?

SOWELL: I have not personally. I know we've been in contact with the FBI, yes.

O'BRIEN: OK, the FBI. All right. Greg Sowell with the Nacogdoches County authorities there. The public information officer on the line with us, giving a sense of what is happening on the ground there in central Texas, which is -- the shuttle was about 200,000 feet above central Texas when it broke up. We can only imagine the debris field is going to be rather spread out and extensive.

And we caution those of you who listen to us and can hear us now, by all means not -- please do not touch anything you suspect to be debris from the space shuttle. It could be very hazardous. There is a toxic brew of chemicals inside these shuttles -- hydrogen tetroxide, hydrazine, which can cause you all kinds of health problems, short- term and long-term. It can burn you. It can give you cancer.

All of the thrusters on the space shuttle -- you see this little back dots down here on the end, these are where the thrusters are -- are powered in this combination of hydrogen and nitrogen tetroxide. And it is nasty stuff. And the space shuttle is just a witch's brew of those kinds of things. And you would be putting yourself in great peril if you were to pick up or handle any piece of the shuttle. It's federal property. You also might find yourself answering to authorities, so please, let it be. Pick up the phone.

Let's listen to James Hartsfield one more time in Houston, please.


HARTSFIELD: ... contingency plans designed to secure all information and data pertinent to today's descent by the space shuttle Columbia. Communication with the space shuttle Columbia were lost at approximately 8:00 a.m. Central Time this morning at an altitude of about 200,000 feet above north central Texas as Columbia was en route to a landing planned at 8:16 a.m. Central Time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

At the time communication was lost, Columbia was traveling at approximately 12,500 miles per hour. Search and rescue teams in the Dallas/Ft. Worth vicinity and in portions of east Texas and other pertinent areas have been alerted to the space shuttle contingency.

O'BRIEN: All right, we're listening to James Hartsfield...

HARTSFIELD: ... debris that may be related to the space shuttle contingency that is located, should be avoided and may be hazardous due to toxic nature of... O'BRIEN: All right, he's restating what I just told you. Let's bring him down if we could. James Hartsfield is the public affairs officer for NASA. He's sitting in a console there in mission control, giving us the latest on what we know. The shuttle was traveling at 12,500 miles an hour. It's hard to even imagine that kind of speed. We're talking about something that exceeds the speed of a bullet when you're seeing what you're seeing now at an altitude of 200,000 feet. Tremendous pressure and forces on the craft at that moment. Now, granted the air is thin there and the idea is to ease the shuttle in, slow down as you come in and ease that, and gradually apply the brakes, if you will. But a tremendous amount of pressure.

Now, the space shuttle -- the fleet was designed to fly 100 missions each. Each airframe was certified to fly 100 missions. And to date, the entire fleet has flown 113 missions. This was Columbia's 28th flight. And, thus, it is well below what would have been its useful capacity, at least as an airframe.

The target in all of this, the landing site, if you want to just take a look at it, we can just give you a sense of where they head to. Fifteen minutes from where it broke up, the space shuttle -- the overburn begins over the Indian Ocean and the brakes just keep coming as it comes down for the world's most harrowing glider ride, is really a good way to describe it. As we zoom in on the Kennedy Space Center, and what you see here is those are the launch pads. That's where Columbia left from 16 days ago. That's the big vehicle assembly building. That's where we view the launches, right in that spot right there.

There's about -- just to give you a scale, there's three miles in between those two sites. That's as close as anybody gets to a space shuttle launch except for the crash team. And the crash team sits about a mile away, right there. And zooming in here, we see the vehicle assembly building. And down the runway -- this is Runway 33, which is where the space shuttle was headed. It's a northwest to a southeast runway, 15,000 feet in length not too terribly much longer than what you'd find at a big international airport, but much wider, 300 feet wide. Space shuttle Columbia never made it to its intended destination today.

Let's get CNN's Patty Davis on with us.

Patty what can you tell us?

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, the FAA is saying that it had not had any contact with the shuttle. That shuttle, of course, at about 200,000 feet when it appears to have broken up. The FAA air traffic control would have come into play at about 60,000 feet and I'm told it would have directed the aircraft in just like any other aircraft that it was bringing in. But it just did not get to that point.

Now, the NTSB would most likely play a role in this accident investigation. In the shuttle Challenger accident, it had a technical adviser role. It most likely would have that same type of role in this instance. Now, one safety expert, a former NTSB official, telling me what probably you'll need to look at here, since terrorism seems unlikely here, is an aging aircraft issue. Now I know, Miles, you said these shuttles, meant to fly about 100 missions, but this particular shuttle, some 22 years old. And this former NTSB official saying that that certainly -- the age here could have played a role.

Now, as far as terrorism is concerned -- now, for commercial aircraft, one of the things that officials have been worried about recently is surface-to-air missiles. We're told that, however, the highest -- even the most sophisticated of those surface-to-air missiles could only reach about 60,000 feet in the air, so not particularly a factor, not likely to be a factor in this case. One safety expert saying perhaps that the only way terrorism could have played a role here is if something had been placed onboard perhaps -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's listen to James Hartsfield one more time. Let's see if he has any news for us. James Hartsfield, the public affairs officer in Houston. Let's listen.


HARTSFIELD: ... at approximately 8:00 a.m. Central Time as it flew at an altitude of 200,000 feet and a speed of approximately 12,500-mile percent hour toward a planned landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Touchdown for Columbia was scheduled for 8:16 a.m. Central Time in Florida.

O'BRIEN: All right. He appears to be recapping what we know. We'll bring James down and -- we have with us on the line, as we -- let's show that videotape if we can again. It's stunning videotape, captured by our affiliate, WFAA, out of Dallas. Specifically, the man with the camera hoisted on the shoulder was John Pronx.

John, are you with us?


O'BRIEN: John, I don't know how much experience you have with space and shuttles, but did you have the sense as you watched this that something was amiss?

PRONX: Well, I had seen the shuttle once on reentry. I was in West Texas and I heard a sonic boom and I saw it pass over with the one contrail. So yes, when I saw all these contrails with reflective material in the early morning sky, I was -- it did seem unusual, but I have limited experience seeing the shuttle on reentry. So...


PRONX: ... and even our anchor made mention of it. We did a live shot at a little after 8:00 when it came over Dallas/Ft. Worth.

O'BRIEN: And we're talking about 8:00 Central Time here, just to clarify for our viewers out there who are in various time zones. John, what did you hear as you were shooting that? Do you recall?

PRONX: I didn't hear anything.

O'BRIEN: You were pretty far away, of course.

PRONX: Yes. We were listening to NASA. They were giving us updates on where the shuttle was and -- so we could get an idea when it would come over Dallas/Ft. Worth. We heard it -- but it was coming over northern California, then Arizona, and then El Paso. And at that point, I started watching for it of course. And suddenly it appeared. And I -- so I turned my camera on and started to roll video. And we did -- we shot it live as it came over Dallas/Ft. Worth.

O'BRIEN: And at what point then did you have some realization something went wrong?

PRONX: When I came back into the station they were saying it was overdue. And that's when we started to reroll the tape and then information started coming out of NASA. But it wasn't until I actually got back in the newsroom that people were say, well, it's overdue.

O'BRIEN: John Pronx, videographer, WFAA, our affiliate, in Texas. John Pronx, we thank you for your efforts in giving us this insight in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the space shuttle Columbia, breaking up into several pieces there.

Let's recap for those who are just joining us. As John mentioned, the space shuttle Columbia was at the tail end of a 16-day science mission, a seven-person crew. They were head back home. And somewhere over central Texas, a 100 miles south of Dallas or thereabouts, this is what happened here. If you take a look here, you'll see what starts out normally quickly becomes multiple trails there, multiple trails. That's something that is very telling and no mistaking that this is an in-flight breakup. The question as to why is another matter entirely, which we couldn't get into without getting very deep into the world of speculation. But that shot tells you what happened.

Why it happened will be the subject of discussion for months and perhaps years to come. But here we go, let's look at the shot now. Now, I want to call your attention. Watch that fireball. That's normal. One streak, very hot, coming from orbit, 2,000-plus degrees, dissipating heat, boom. Look at that piece come off. And then shortly thereafter, a flash. See that flash right in there and then a piece of smoke came off, a puff of smoke. Something happened first. So something happened first, then second, and then as it went along further, breakup, sort of a three-step process. A small piece, a flash, and then very shortly thereafter multiple pieces of the space shuttle Columbia at that point travel traveling 12,500 miles an hour.

Just to give you a sense, they travel around the planet at about 17,500 miles an hour, so having lost 5,000 miles an hour of speed already, still traveling the speed of a bullet. Let's take a look at the crew and tell you who was on board for this 16-day science mission.

The commander, Rick Husband -- if we can get some pictures up of them that would be appreciate. Do we have the pictures? There we go. There's the crew. If you put that in the telestrator, I'll tell people who's who. The commander is Rick Husband and -- I don't have it in the telestrator, so I can just tell you -- OK, yes, there's Rick Husband and he is a colonel in the United States Air Force. And he was born on July 12, 1957, from Amarillo, Texas, truly the pride of Amarillo, Texas, on his second mission.

His first mission he flew as a shuttle pilot, STS-96, aboard Discovery in May of 1999. They went to the International Space Station. Unusual, quite frankly, for these days -- for pilots to rise to the level of commander on their second flight, but Rick Husband was an unusually good guy and a sharp guy at that.

Also on board -- and this is Ilan Ramon, colonel in the Israeli air force. This was the first Israeli ever to fly in space. The son of a holocaust survivor who spoke to us -- we're trying to get some of these interviews together that we shot with him beforehand. We're hopeful that we'll have them for you shortly so you can hear from them in their own words -- but spoke to us at length about what this meant to his country and how his country, having endured the Holocaust, could not have fathomed an Israeli traveling in space, looking down upon the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Also on this flight, Michael Anderson, lieutenant, colonel in the United States Air Force. Plattsburgh, New York, his home. He was flying on his second mission. He flew in January of '98 on STS-89. The space shuttle Endeavour flew to Mir. And -- although he is a person who sort of sat in the back of the shuttle and did mission specialist duties, has a lot of experience with flight, in KC-135s and certainly with T-38s.

Also on this particular mission, Laurel Clark, a medical doctor, as you can see plainly there. Laurel hails from Racine, Wisconsin, came to NASA in 1996, her first mission.

Along with them, the pilot, the person who sits in the right-hand seat, right beside Rick Husband, William "Willie" McCool, Navy commander, born September 1961, came from San Diego, reported to NASA in '96. This was his first flight. A man who was familiar with carrier landings, worked out of Whidbey Island and flying the EA-6B Prowler, which you might be familiar with.

Also on the space shuttle Columbia, David Brown, captain in the United States Navy, out of Arlington, Virginia. A pilot himself, although he wasn't sitting in the front seats at the controls of the shuttle. He's a mission specialist. Twenty-seven hundred hours in high-performance military aircraft. His first flight as well.

Kalpana Chawla, born in Kamal, India, is an astronaut with some experience in 1996, STS-87, U.S. microgravity payload, scientific mission. She operated the robotic arm on that particular mission. A PhD. and for fun she used to fly aerobatic airplanes, tail-wheel aerobatic airplanes. That was her passion in addition to space flight.

There's the crew. And I was commending about the suits that they're wearing there, those orange suits, those so-called pumpkin suits, launch and reentry suits, they called them. Those suits were not worn in the years immediately after the first few missions up to Challenger. The crew went up in essentially a flight suit, just a jump suit, not a pressure suit. They wore helmets, but they didn't have the pressure suit. One of the reforms that came out of the Challenger accident was that these suits would be worn by the crewmembers as they rose to space and as they came back home. The idea being that if there was some sort of rapid decompression, loss of cabin atmosphere, inside the flight deck and the mid-deck that the crew could survive. But as we pointed out, not too long ago -- as we pointed out not too long ago, this is not a situation where the crew would have even had the option of bailing out. That altitude, that speed, it's not a goal.

Let's listen to James Hartsfield one more time, Houston.


HARTSFIELD: ... space shuttle contingency procedures designed to secure all information, notes and data pertinent to today's descent by the space shuttle Columbia. Communications were lost with the space shuttle Columbia at approximately 8:00 a.m. Central Time as Columbia was above north central Texas at an altitude of 200,000 feet, traveling at approximately 12,500 miles per hour.

Search and rescue forces in the Dallas/Ft. Worth areas and in other portions along Columbia's planned route have been alerted to the space shuttle program contingency.

Any debris that may be...

O'BRIEN: All right, we're going to bring James Hartsfield down because it's a bit repetitive. If you've been watching, you know what he's going to say, which is don't touch debris that you might see if you happen to be in that part of the world. Stay away from it. It could hurt you. It could potentially kill you. And it's against the law to touch it, so don't do it.

Let's go now to Jerusalem and Kelly Wallace.

Kelly, Ilan Ramon in many ways, the pride of Israel.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, exactly, the pride of Israel. And so, as you might imagine, tremendous sadness, shock and emotion throughout the country right now. A colleague of mine was talking to a top representative at Israel's spy -- excuse me, space agency, and his quote is -- "We are in shock." We know that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, we are told, was watching events unfold on television like most of us were. His spokesman saying the prime minister watching those events. No formal official reaction though coming from the Israeli government until there is a formal announcement from NASA and from the American government. But we can tell you that when Colonel Ilan Ramon took off on the space shuttle there was tremendous excitement in Israel. It was front-page news on the Israeli newspapers, on the Israeli television stations, really, a lot of joy.

As you know, Miles, a lot of sadness in this country. There has been tremendous violence over the past few months, lots of concern about that. There were the elections just a few days ago. Not a lot of excitement about that. But this was looked at as tremendous joy and pride.

Colonel Ramon, we know, is married, has four children. His father, in fact, we understand, was watching some of the events on television at an Israeli television station a short time ago. We believe he has since left and headed to his home.

Colonel Ramon has tremendous experience. More than 3,000 flight hours. Also, he took part in a mission back in 1981, a mission destroying the nuclear reactor in Iraq. He also took part in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, so tremendous pride in Colonel Ramon. And right now, people are just still holding out hope this will turn out but right now tremendous sadness throughout Israel.

O'BRIEN: All right. It's hard to imagine the depth of sadness, as we just sort of absorb all of this, Kelly. And it's difficult to even assess it here. But there, I think -- in a very profound way, a lot of hopes and dreams were flying with Ilan Ramon.

WALLACE: Exactly. The representative from the space agency -- again, talking to my colleague a short time ago -- saying really everything is lost, all the work, all the experimentation, a lot of dreams, as you said and again, the symbol, really. This being the first Israeli astronaut in space and also coming in the context of a very difficult time. This has been more than two years of violence in this country, the start of the second Palestinian intifadah against Israel. The economy is dismal right now, lots of concern about the violence, the state of the situation, the future.

And again, Miles, just looking at the media attention, looking at television and newspaper coverage of this, it was really looked at by many as one piece of really good news in a sea of a lot of bad news over the past few months -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: It's stunningly tragic. Please, Kelly, stay close. Let us know what you hear from the government, what you hear on the streets.

Of course, we're all harkened back to the last time this happened. Seventeen years ago this past week, we marked the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger and its explosion. A little more than a minute after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, the seven-member crew died there. We marked that anniversary this past week. Tom Mintier, CNN correspondent, was live on the air at that moment has covered numerous shuttle moments over the years.

Tom, what are your thoughts? TOM MINTIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, my thoughts go to the families of the seven astronauts aboard the Columbia, the families, the friends, the loved ones, immediately first.

As you're well aware, the most two dangerous times are ascent and descent. And I asked them if we had the animation of not only the ascent but the descent, when it -- at maximum pressure and maximum velocity, the shuttle turns red hot underneath as it re-enters the atmosphere.

And what you're seeing now in these pictures, the heat is just absolutely tremendous. And as you pointed out, the multiple targets, by seeing different pieces, it is something we, of course, have seen before but not in the same dynamics that we saw this morning, but very, very difficult to watch, not once, but a second time for me.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Take us back to that day and what that was like and what happened in the immediate aftermath?

MINTIER: Well, the investigation was there for the search for the debris, which I'm sure there would have been larger pieces because they weren't as high in the atmosphere as they were on this one. But the investigation is going to center around this debris field that you talk about, being across a wide area of west Texas. I'm sure the pieces that they find will not be very large. The initial descriptions that we've been hearing from west Texas are very small pieces of debris.

But it's going to be a very slow long investigation that takes a look at the airframe. As you mentioned, these airframes are certified for a 100 missions. And of course, Columbia nowhere near that. But again, certification and what occurs in-flight or after flight as we find out with Challenger are not necessarily what's written in the books.

O'BRIEN: Well, it's worth pointing to our viewers -- and I know, Tom, you are well aware of this. Twenty plus year after Columbia first flew, the first shuttle to fly, this is still an experimental vehicle, an experimental program. This is not an airliner, is it?

MINTIER: No, it's not. And every time these astronauts strap themselves in for a mission, they realize the dangers that they are about to face. They train for it for months, if not years, before they fly, while they're flying, and while they're returning. They know what the dangers are that are facing this program.

O'BRIEN: They do. They do understand it. If -- Tom, if you could stay close, we may want to check in with you in just a moment.

I think probably this might be a good time to hear from some of the crewmembers. We, of course, interviewed them before they left and got a sense of their excitement for their mission, their zest for their job. A lot of them would tell you it really wasn't a job. Let's listen to Michael Anderson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MICHAEL ANDERSON, PAYLOAD COMMANDER: Well, unfortunately this mission is so packed with scientific experiments and everything. As a matter of fact, when we return, we'll be the heaviest space shuttle ever to land. So there's not a lot of room to take anything personal or special with you on this flight. So basically, I'm just going to take my notebook with my notes and a couple extra pens and pencils.


O'BRIEN: All right, Michael Anderson. We spoke to all the crew before they left. And as they always do, we asked them about the risks. We asked them about their philosophy on their risks. And to a person they say it's all worth it. Let's listen to Rick Husband, the commander.


RICK HUSBAND, COMMANDER: The shuttle is a great vehicle. It is so impressive every time I sit down and study the different systems to see how well thought out this vehicle is and how well it worked, every time we go in flight. The fleet actually has probably only reached about a quarter of its design life. So on our particular flight this will be the 28th flight of Columbia and each of the airframes was designed for a 100 flights, so there's still a lot of life left in the shuttle fleet.

And it is, I would say, a tribute to the people who work on the shuttle and the inspections they do and being able to find some very minor flaws, like what we're talking about here, because they do a fantastic job in doing the inspections and finding these things. And it's just like if you were -- it's just kind of like normal upkeep and maintenance, like you would have on your car except this is a much larger system.

And so, it is a very impressive and certainly by myself, very much appreciated that the people are so diligent and do such a great job in keeping track of all those things.


O'BRIEN: Kind of hard to hear all those words right at this moment. But those words are all still well true.


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