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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Space Shuttle Columbia Breaks Up on Re-Entry, Part IV

Aired February 1, 2003 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Do we have any reports of injuries on the ground, either from impact or people who picked something up that is toxic?
JOHNSON: None. We have no reports of injuries whatsoever.

O'BRIEN: All right. Cliff Johnson. Let's hope it stays just that way. Cliff Johnson is an assistant to the Governor Rick Perry, in the great state of Texas, where they have a huge, huge debris field. We're talking about an area that spans 120 miles.

Let's bring people up to date at the noon hour eastern time. We should have been, at this point, showing you about a 20 or 30 second clip of the space shuttle Columbia landing about 9:15 a.m. Eastern time. That's when it should have touched down gently at the Kennedy Space Center, the three-mile-long runway there.

Instead we've been showing you this, which is the final moments of the space shuttle Columbia, the old gray lady of the shuttle fleet as some call it. Perhaps not indicative of its condition, however. As it broke up over north central Texas. Altitude of 200,000 feet at some 12,500 miles an hour, faster than a speeding bullet, quite literally. Mission Control lost contact with the orbiter about 15 or 16 minutes prior to its anticipated landing.

The landing scenario begins literally over the Indian Ocean with the de-orbit burn. It's an incredible glider ride, braking glider ride, all the way, halfway around the planet to the Kennedy Space Center. Tremendous stresses induced on the orbiter as it bleeds off speed and trades speed for heat, quite frankly. Twenty thousand tiles are on the outside of a space shuttle in order to protect its aluminum frame from that heat, in excess of 2,000 degrees, well beyond the melting point of aluminum.

Seven-person crew was on board, commanded by Rick Husband, a Colonel in the United States Air Force on his second flight. His first as Commander. There's the remainder of the crew. If you put in the telestrater, it will help people tell who's who. And there's Rick Husband there. His pilot was on his first flight, and he was a commander in the United States Navy, Willie McCool. William "Willie" McCool. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli ever to fly in space.

And I'm listening to NASA for just a moment. He's repeating that we're going get a news conference at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Michael Anderson, mission specialist, who was on his second flight. He flew to the space station Mir in 1998. Kalpana Chawla, who was born in India and is a naturalized American and, for fun, flew gliders and flew, also, before 1997, operating the robot arm of the shuttle for an experimental scientific mission. Laurel Clark. She was on her first flight, selected by NASA in 1996. Ph.D., hailing from Racine, Wisconsin. And finally, David Brown, who was selected by NASA, same astronaut class, also, on his first flight. Captain in the United States Navy.

They conducted a successful 16-day science mission, and did everything they set out to do, by all accounts. And everything -- they had a few problems, but every mission has a few problems. Humidifier kind of acted up. Some of the experiments gave them fits. But essentially had a very successful 16-day science run, covering all manner of life sciences, and physical properties, and protein crystal growth. Everything from that to looking at how dust storms impact global warming was a part of this mission.

Let's go back to the White House; Suzanne Malveaux is there. The President is due to arrive any minute now. Might be there now. Suzanne, what do you have for us?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We are expecting the president to arrive momentarily at the southwest gate by motorcade. As you know, the president returning from his weekend, planned at Camp David. He heard the news, we are told, shortly after NASA had lost contact with the shuttle. He was immediately notified by his Chief of Staff, Andy Card.

We are also told that the vice president, as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers was also notified at that time. We are told the president made a call, that he has talked to the director of NASA, Shawn O'Keefe, at 10:30 this morning and that U.S. officials have been in contact with Israeli officials about this tragedy.

We expect, sources tell us that the president will be contacting, calling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later in the day. Right now what is happening is that the aides are behind closed doors; they're debating on just how the president will address the country. We have been told that he will not formally address the nation until after NASA formally gives its presentation and then the president will speak, we are told. But as you can imagine, Miles, really quite a tragic situation.

We saw, early this morning, people who immediately, after they found out back here at the White House, Dr. Rice, as well as other staffers, getting the news firsthand. Of course, monitoring the situation. This a big tragedy for the country as well as this administration, already dealing with the situation in Iraq, as well as 9/11. Quite a shock to many people here at the White House -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Suzanne Malveaux, thank you very much. We will be checking in at the White House frequently all throughout the rest of this afternoon. We're told we're going to hear from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe first, and then the president will make some sort of address to the nation.

We've got to remind you about the debris, and I apologize to those of you who have been watching for some length of time if this is very repetitive, and irrelevant if you don't live in this part of the world. But it's worth mentioning repeatedly. If you see what you're seeing right here in this parking lot. That's a shot from one of our viewers. That's a piece of Columbia debris. Don't touch it. It's -- the shuttle is just a witch's brew of toxic chemicals.

After it lands, the folks who first approach the orbiter are wearing full respirator devices, because there's so many gasses which come off of it, which might cause you immediate and long-term health effects. We're talking about monomethylhydrozine, nitrogen titroxide, primarily, two very volatile chemicals. They are, after all, designed to create explosions spontaneously. Spontaneous combustion when the two meet. And that's what allows the shuttle to maneuver when it's in orbit and when it's in higher altitudes.

We're going to show you something that's kind of raw video coming in. This is video which comes to us, amateur video of what we've been showing you through the good graces of WFAA all day. There you see it -- we'll try to get that together for you. And as soon as we get it cued up.

But I just want to underscore the point, if you see it, please don't touch it. Notify the authorities. Let them know where it is. It's important that they get a hold of all of this debris, because that will ultimately be a part of the investigation. But really, more important, it's in your own best interest not to touch it because it can really, really cause you some harm.

As we try to get that tape together I want to tell you about Ilan Ramon. Ilan Ramon, who you see in the far right of this picture here. You see the flag of Israel behind him. First Israeli to fly in space. An absolute hero of the Jewish state. And decorated fighter pilot who actually helped take out Saddam Hussein's nuclear facility in the mid- 80s in Iraq, among other things. Flew in space. The son of a Holocaust survivor who really saw his mission as a manifestation of things to come, of a better day for the middle east. It might sound a little bit Pollyanna, but he saw this as a way of bringing some hope to his nation and perhaps to his whole region.

One of the experiments which he was charged with was to look at the very building blocks of the universe and how micro meteors might have carried the seeds of life from planet to planet. Perhaps seeding the solar system with life, if you will. But what's, perhaps, most interesting about that experiment is the two principle scientists on it were an Israeli and a Palestinian. And it proved that at least in this case the high frontier was one place where people who don't get along can find a way to get along. Let's listen to what Ilan Ramon had to say to us before he left.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're flying some special things with you in space. Can you tell me a little bit about those? ILAN RAMON, ASTRONAUT: Yes. I fly with me -- first of all, I fly with me the Israeli emblem, which I asked for from the President of Israel. And he sent me an Israeli flag. Actually, it's an Israeli emblem. I also fly very special drawing of Peter Gintz, who was a boy, 13, 14-year-old boy in one of the camps, and he and a group of other kids there were writing their own paper, in the camp, and they were transferring this paper from one to another to read it. And Peter was a very, very talented guy, boy, actually. He was interested in science and in writing and in painting. And he drew, at that time, as he envisioned earth would look like from the moon.

And I'm taking -- his drawing made it after the war and they are now in a museum in Jerusalem. They were kind and gave me this picture, this drawing. I will take it with me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Ilan Ramon, a member of the crew of the space shuttle Columbia lost, above Texas, today. Right about 9:00 AM Eastern time. Let's continue our discussion of Ilan Ramon, who is a bona fide hero of the state of Israel. For that, we turn to Kelly Wallace, who joins us from Jerusalem -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, as we've been saying throughout the day, tremendous sadness throughout this country, throughout the government. Also everyday Israelis reacting. Also Colonel Ramon's family speaking out. His sister-in-law doing an interview with Israeli television a short time ago. She said, quote, "I know that he would want to be remembered as the first Israeli astronaut. He was elated with joy." Also Colonel Ramon's brother did an interview. He said that he had spoken to Colonel Ramon's wife; they talked about how this was a big tragedy. He also said how everyone was so euphoric, how this was really a dream come true, and obviously now, the entire family dealing with the unthinkable.

The prime minister himself, Ariel Sharon, his office, has issued a statement. The prime minister has been watching events, we are told, on television, from his farm in southern Israel. In that statement, the Prime Minister's office saying, quote, "the government of Israel and the people of Israel pray together with the whole world for the safety of the astronauts aboard the shuttle Columbia." The statement going on to say, "The state of Israel and its citizens stand at this difficult hour with the families of the astronauts. Colonel Ramon's family, the American people and the U.S. government, with a joint prayer to God the creator, that the astronauts will return safely to their homes."

Now we do know that the U.S. embassy in Washington, or rather the Israeli embassy in Washington, has dispatched a team to Florida to be with Colonel Ramon's wife and his four children who were there to watch the return of the space shuttle. We also know that the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, spoke earlier in the day with the Director of NASA Sean O'Keefe. And a spokesman in Washington for the Israeli embassy saying this is a tragedy both for the Israeli people and the American people. Throughout the day our colleagues have been talking to people on the streets of Israel. You can imagine tremendous sadness. One woman telling my colleague, quote, "he was the first astronaut to observe Shabbat in space. It was a beautiful experience for Jewish people, something the Jewish people could be very proud of."

We've been talking throughout the day about the context. This coming, really, as the Israeli people have been dealing with more than two years of violence in this second Palestinian intifada against Israel. And, Miles, I can tell you, I was here when Colonel Ramon took off on the space shuttle and we watched the coverage. Front page news in every newspaper. Live coverage on every Israeli television station. A sense of joy, a sense of happiness. And many reporters. Miles, let me toss it back to you now, for the latest.

O'BRIEN: Kelly Wallace, thank you very much. And really, the kind of attention and excitement about the mission -- I guess we've lost Kelly? Can we continue the discussion with her? With Kelly? all right, we'll check in with Kelly in just a moment.

But what I -- the point I was going to try to make is that, for many of us here in the United States, for many people that don't follow the space program closely, the whole event of the space shuttle mission, this, after all, was the 113th mission, we comment on the order of routine, or seemingly routine. We can tell you it wasn't, it wasn't. And anybody who knows anything, or took the time to learn about it would tell you that this was an experimental vehicle, right on the edge of human capability.

Let's now -- we have another view of this, and we've been showing you that view from our affiliate, WFAA, which clearly shows an in- flight breakup, there's no doubt about that. Cause is another matter entirely. This is amateur video, which was shot out of Lafayette, Louisiana, from Rob Perillo. Rob is on the line with us. Rob, what did you see and hear?

ROB PERILLO, SHOT AMATEUR VIDEO OF BREAKUP: Well, Miles, I'm a meteorologist. I work for the CBS affiliate in Lafayette, Louisiana. I always tell our viewers to go out, take a look at the shuttle when it comes in, when it doesn't fly space station missions. Normally, we can see the shuttle coming across southern Louisiana.

There what you see is a little bit of a different angle of the video that you saw out of WFAA a little bit earlier this morning. I went out to view this shuttle and took off a telescopic lens and went straight out of the video recorder. You can see, again, looks like some of the debris there taking a right hand turn. Some of it continuing on. Basically -- and after that we normally would hear the sonic boom, and instead of one singular sonic boom, I heard probably on the order of five or six smaller sonic booms that were stretched out over about a ten-second time frame.

O'BRIEN: Rob, that clearly, if you're a shuttle watcher and you look at that, which once again I have been harkening back to the Mir reentry, which we brought you a year and a half or so ago. The fact that you saw five pieces and heard five sonic booms, did you realize immediately there was trouble?

PERILLO: I knew immediately. And it's a good thing that you guys probably didn't take the audio part of that tape. I had the NASA web site on my broadband computer here. And I ran into the house and heard nothing but silence for the next 10 minutes. I knew right then and there something was wrong.

O'BRIEN: Rob Perillo, can you just give me a sense of your thoughts as you witnessed this?

PERILLO: Well, I had the same feeling. I remember the Challenger accident. I was working at an aviation company at the time. The utter shock of, and unbelievability of the initial moment. I had gotten my wife up and my daughter, my 9-year-old, to go outside and take a look at this. The astonishment that you feel right offhand is indescribable. You know immediately that when you see multiple pieces of debris flying, that it's not a good situation. We knew what we were looking at as this system was coming in. It looked good. We normally see it when it's between Dallas and San Antonio. That's where I picked it up. And then where you see that debris was more than likely closer to the Texas-Louisiana border.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Perillo, thank you for sharing that tape with us. We do appreciate it. What that shows us is the time immediately after the WFAA tape, the shuttle moving from west to east, Mach 16 or so. Obviously there, very quickly there after. But it did definitely show us that distinct pattern, multiple targets is the technical term. Big pieces. Multiple sonic booms quite clear. We're talking about an in- flight breakup.

Where are we headed now? All right, here we go. This is a live picture from our affiliate KDFW, out of Dallas-Ft. Worth. You're looking at a piece of debris, space shuttle "Columbia." We're told the debris field extends 120 miles or so. When you're traveling that fast, that high, that's to be expected. Of course, some pieces lighter than others. Some pieces have aerodynamic qualities, will flutter down. Others will travel down very quickly.

It's impossible to make out what that is, except to tell you that because it is dark, it is probably something to do with the underbelly, the portions of the shuttle has those dark tiles. There are 20,000 tiles in all on a space shuttle. Actually scaled back the number a little bit. But tens of thousands, anyhow. The black ones on the bottom are designed to handle more significant heat loads. The whiter tiles, which are more on the top and sides where the heat is not as much of an issue, are designed to handle less, to shed less heat, put it that way.

Live pictures, KDFW. I don't know exactly where that is, but it's obviously in that swath of Texas from I-45 all the way to the Louisiana border. Let's head over to Heidi Collins -- Heidi.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Miles. We are going to be seeing many more pictures like that, because that debris field is so very large. We want to take a minute now to talk more about the astronauts. Of course, we are all mourning the loss of each and every one of those seven astronauts today. Six Americans onboard, one Non- American. That Non-American is Israeli Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon. He was a payload specialist. Forty-eight years old, married and father of four.

We've been talking about him a lot today because of the special attention that went to him for being the very first Israeli astronaut. As Kelly Wallace has been reporting, certainly during a time of unrest and tragedy in that country already. He was a symbol of hope and had hoped very much to bring that to his family and his countrymen in Israel. Let's go ahead to Judy Woodruff, now. She's standing by in Washington, D.C. To tell us even more about Colonel Ramon -- Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Heidi. We are in Washington, as you said. With me now is the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon. Mr. Ambassador, how did you find out about this this morning?

DANIEL AYALON, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Well, first of all I heard it from the news. And then Sean O'Keefe -- Mr. Sean O'Keefe, Administrator of NASA, was kind enough to call and give me an update. This is a big tragedy for the United States, for Israel and, mainly, for the families. This is where we are headed now, to be with the family and to help in any way we can.

WOODRUFF: You're flying in a few minutes, or a little bit from now, to where? Where will you go?

AYALON: We're going to go to the Kennedy Space center in Cape Canaveral, in Florida. This is where the family's being flown to. They were waiting for the landing in Houston.

WOODRUFF: They were in Houston waiting.

AYALON: They were in Houston waiting. Right now they are being flown by NASA. We will go there, meet with them and try to give them as much comfort as possible.

WOODRUFF: You told me a moment ago that you had just met Mr. Ramon, what two weeks ago? Just two weeks ago, before this shuttle flight took off?

AYALON: Yes. This was on the day of the launch. This was a very special day for Israel, for Israeli/U.S. relations. And I think from a very human perspective, the special story of Ilan Ramon, who is the son of a survivor, who took with him to space, as he mentioned here before, a drawing of Peter Gintz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy who perished in the Holocaust. Before his death just -- he was drawing the earth as he imagined from space. This picture, this drawing went with Ilan on board. And stayed with him until the end.

WOODRUFF: What did it mean for the people of Israel, of your country, to have an astronaut going into space on a shuttle for the first time from Israel?

AYALON: Well, there was very special significance. First of all, we are very proud of our technological advance and prowess, so this was also a testament to Israel's position in high-tech and excellence and progress. Of course, every endeavor we do with the United States, we are very much proud of. It was also a testament to the strength of the relationship between the U.S. and America, And Israel. Israel is the only democracy in the middle east. We have is a special bond. And we took it into a different dimension up in space. Of course, the special story of Ilan Ramon. Just think, that in two generations, when we were at the lowest ebb, on verge of demise, in the Holocaust, and in two generations we were soaring up to excellence and really to the state of the art. So this was very, very significant.

WOODRUFF: Tell us a little bit more about Colonel Ramon. As you said, I understand, both his parents were survivors of the concentration --

AYALON: His mother was.

WOODRUFF: His mother was a survivor of the concentration camp. He had fought in two wars for Israel?

AYALON: Yes. He was a ...

WOODRUFF: Fighter pilot?

AYALON: Right.

WOODRUFF: And went on some, what, seven or eight years ago to say, I want, may have a career as an astronaut?

AYALON: Yes, he did. That was his, I guess, calling. Of course, in our context with the United States, with the administration, we thought of new areas of cooperation. The natural one was to look up into space. We have been cooperating in so many areas here on earth, so there was only to look up, to extend the cooperation and friendship between our two countries. That was the natural thing to do. And Ilan Ramon was the natural Israeli astronaut to send. He was the prepared mentally, and of course, professionally. He was the best we could offer.

WOODRUFF: What about his family? He had four children, a wife. They've been living with him in the United States. They obviously had extended family in Israel. This has to be unimaginable.

AYALON: Yes, it is. His father came specially. The training was, Judy, for more than two years. So he came here with the family. And they were very well integrated into the Houston community. They went -- his kids, he has four kids, as you mentioned. They went to school in Houston. His wife was very much a member of the community there. They really enjoyed it. I talked to his wife. They really enjoyed life in Houston and being with the astronauts, being with the Americans. It was a very special experience for them.

WOODRUFF: And now, Ambassador Ayalon, you're headed to Cape Canaveral for what is going to be a very difficult, very, very difficult time with them. We do so appreciate your coming in. Ambassador Daniel Ayalon from Israel to the United States, about to fly, as he said, to Cape Canaveral, to join the family of astronaut Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut on board the shuttle "Columbia." once again, we're waiting for a press conference, NASA press conference. That's at 1:00 eastern. As we leave you, the flag at the White House at half staff. Miles, back to you.

O'BRIEN: I think that picture tells us a lot right there, looking at the White House flag at half staff. As the nation begins a period of mourning and assessment, and discussion in the wake of a terrible tragedy, as good people lose their lives doing what they love and pushing the boundaries of space exploration. Let's bring in the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman. Ambassador Gillerman, on behalf of the people of America, we offer our condolences to the people of Israel.

DAN GILLERMAN, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: I can't hear him.

O'BRIEN: Apparently he cannot hear us. Can you hear us, Mr. Ambassador?

No. He's unable to hear us. Let me show you something that is rather dramatic, one of our engineers here who is a pilot, as well as I am. Talk about these kinds of things a lot. Pulled up the weather radar for the Shreveport, Louisiana, area. That is wreckage of the shuttle, Columbia, coming through; reacting to the radar, which detects heat and motion. And that green area is kind of the ground clutter from Shreveport. What you're seeing, that red scar there, is the final remnants of the space shuttle Columbia before it fell to earth. There's Alexandria, Monroe, Shreveport, Tyler, Texas, right on the border. We've been told the debris field extends right to the border of Louisiana. I suspect there's places in Louisiana where there are pieces of debris. We haven't heard from as many people from there, but the word to them is the same as the word to the people of Texas, which is, stay away from it. Call the authorities, but stay away from it.

Let's go now back to the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman. Mr. Ambassador, good to have you with us. And what I said before was, on behalf of the people of America, we'd like to extend our condolences to the people of Israel. Just wanted to get your thoughts right now of Ilan Ramon and what he signified to your country.

GILLERMAN: Well, thank you. And I would like to express, also, the condolences of the Israeli people. Although I am still clinging to some sliver of hope that maybe, maybe, maybe our prayers will come true. Our prayers and thoughts and hearts with the American people and with Ilan Ramon's family on this very, very difficult day.

This is a very special day for us. This was meant to be a very special day for us, because this cooperation really demonstrated the true bond between Israel and the United States. Two brave and free countries, two great democracies, sharing together in this quest to explore and to excel. Ilan Ramon, to us, was not just a pilot or astronaut. He was a symbol. He was a symbol of excellence and freedom at a time when Israel is undergoing one of the most difficult periods in his life. And I can tell you that he became a national hero just by going into space with his American colleagues.

I spoke to the prime minister last night, and he was really anxiously awaiting Ilan Ramon's return. I spoke to many friends in Israel today, and the devastation, and the horror, and the grief are just unimaginable. Because it was a ray of hope, and it was a ray of something good happening in the midst of two very, very difficult years, in which Israel is facing terrorism and some of the most ugly, and vicious, and brutal manifestations of human behavior ever before witnessed. And the fact that Ilan Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors, actually went up there with his American colleagues, forging this bond, and really saying to everybody that at the end of the day, good prevails over evil and that we shall all prevail over the evil surrounding us, brought us a lot of hope, a lot of elation. And because of that, the feelings today are of such devastation, and such real sadness.

O'BRIEN: It's hard to imagine how profound the sadness must be, given especially -- can you still hear me, Mr. Ambassador?

I'm afraid we've lost communication with him once again. We'll leave it at that.

All right. We've been hearing all morning from a lot of people across a wide swath of central, northern, eastern part of Texas. Who have seen things and have actually found some wreckage, which we invite you to stay away from. Linda Steen, or Steed -- Linda Steed is on line with us. Linda, what did you see and hear this morning?

LINDA STEED, WITNESSED SHUTTLE BREAKUP: We got up to watch the shuttle come over, and about two minutes after 8:00, we saw it on the western horizon. And when it got nearer, we could see flecks or pieces of something coming off of it, because we thought it was just the after burners or something. But when it got directly overhead, you could see more things coming off of the back of it. But we still didn't realize what was happening. Then we heard the racket, the sound, after it passed by us. Reverberated and reverberated for several minutes, like an earthquake or something. But that's basically it. I guess we saw it as it was breaking up, though we didn't realize it at the time.

O'BRIEN: Linda, describe that racket a little better for us, if you could. What did it sound like?

STEED: It started out like a heavy thunder, and a rolling thunder sound. And then it -- the dogs started barking and chickens started crowing and everything. Just a real weird sound. And then got -- like, shook the earth. That was kind of it. Kind of like a really heavy thunder.

O'BRIEN: Did you see anything out your window then or did you just hear it? You were watching it. I want to make it clear. I apologize.

STEED: I was standing outside. We saw it.

O'BRIEN: Describe exactly what it looked like. STEED: Well, coming toward us, we could see the sun glinting off of it. We could see like shiny pieces in behind it. We thought it was, like I said, afterburner. But all the time it came directly overhead, we could still see these pieces from behind. But there was a main part of it that seemed to be intact. As it came overhead.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Linda Steed, have you heard about reports or have you seen any of the debris?

STEED: Not personally, but five miles west of where I live right here, there are some pieces down in a church parking lot and behind the church in the woods. And there's some down in town. My son called me a while ago and he saw a piece that was right downtown, Nacogdoches, right behind one of banks.

O'BRIEN: You're looking live pictures from KDFW, from their helicopter. This is a piece of the space shuttle Columbia which is on the median of a highway.

STEED: That would be Highway 7 out by the airport, west of town.

O'BRIEN: That's not far from where you are?

STEED: It's not too terribly far from where I am, no. I'm west of town and it's west of town, just farther south than I am.

O'BRIEN: Hard to pick up what that is.

STEED: They said it was about a 10-foot piece, is what I heard.

O'BRIEN: It's a big piece, that is for sure. Difficult to figure out what part of the shuttle that is. In any case --

STEED: Sir, are you there? Something cut in on my phone. But that's okay.

O'BRIEN: I've got to ask your thoughts, not just as a person who happened to have this happen on their back door. What are your thoughts as an American at this moment?

STEED: I'm devastated, devastated. It's unbelievable. This makes you so sad.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Linda Steed, joining us from Nacogdoches County, Texas, where significant pieces of debris, space shuttle Columbia have fallen.

As it disintegrated at an altitude of 200,000 feet, some 12,500 miles an hour, much faster than a speeding bullet. I'll call your attention -- we got a wider shot now. But there was a triangle of crime scene tape there, that yellow tape that you see. That's what we're encouraging you all to do if you find a piece like that. Get the authorities out there. Cordon it off, don't go near it. It could be very problematic and could cause your some harm because of all of the witches brew of rocket fuel, which is on board any space shuttle. CNN's Alec Fraser is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, Navy Captain. Has a lot of experience in defense matters, intelligence matters through his tour of duty. He joins us now with some insights on couple of aspects of this, which we have to at least touch base on. And that is terrorism -- Alec.

ALEC FRASER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think there are a couple of things that people ought to know because any time an incident like this happens, there's a concern that there was a terrorist threat and somebody shot it down by a missile. There are two reasons that this could not happen by missile intercept. Number one is the altitude. Most missiles cannot fly above 100,000 feet. Mainly because there's not enough air for the tail fins to be able to guide the missile. And, number two, the shuttle was running at a mach 6 rate. Mach 3 is as fast as most intercepts can be done.

O'BRIEN: At 12,500 miles an hour, I believe, equates to faster than even mach 6. But the point is moot because it's way too fast. Right of your screen, by the way, I want to point out, is the president's motorcade, on its way from Camp David. And I believe they're driving in because of the bad weather there. I'm not positive of that. That would probably explain why he's not in a helicopter. Alec, continue in your point, there.

FRASER: For those two reasons this kind of intercept could never happen. There are reports that the people saw a commercial aircraft in the area. But you've got to remember, there's an altitude difference there of 170,000 feet. Any type of intercept or any type of problem of a midair collision is just simply not possible.

O'BRIEN: Yes. We sort of have to touch the base. We have to bring it up, just to knock it down, if nothing else, in this day and age, don't we?

FRASER: That's right. Anything going that fast, and that high, is impossible to be considered as a terrorist missile attack. Remember those concerns that we've had of commercial airliners being shot down by shoulder fire infrared heat-seeking missiles. Those only go to two or three miles high. We're talking about 200,000 feet here. So those are not a threat. So you would be working with a radar- guided missile, a very complex highly technical system that could intercept something that high or that fast. Again, 100,000 feet or mach 3 is about as much as anybody can do.

O'BRIEN: OK. Faster than anything out there. We should underscore that point. But as we say, given the environment in which we live, we've got to at least express that, to make people realize that it isn't possible and it's not a likely scenario. That might be something going through people's minds, right, Alec?

FRASER: Right. It's just not possible.

O'BRIEN: We would like to underscore a couple of points for you. First of all, we are expecting, about 23 minutes from now, a briefing from the NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who little more than a year into his job, has quite a job ahead of him. He will be addressing reporters at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We will, of course, bring that to you live.

It's very likely that there's not a lot that they can offer, he can offer, all of us in the way of technical information to give us a sense of what happened. Except to tell you what you can clearly see on your screen right there. That the shuttle disintegrated, "Columbia," the oldest shuttle in the orbiter fleet of four. Disintegrated over Texas, as we just told you. 12,500 miles an hour. I don't know what that equates to mach, but it's real fast. And 200,00 feet above the ground, disintegrated into those multiple fireballs, five, six, maybe more of them. Big ones. And rained down debris over an area extending beyond 120 miles from Interstate 45 in Texas all the way to the border. We suspect as well as parts of Louisiana. Although we haven't heard from people in Louisiana.

There's a piece of debris there, Anderson County, Texas. Stay away from it, because of the toxic brew which is on board a shuttle could cause you great harm. It's also would be a violation of federal law to touch it.

But hoping to get some more interviews with the crew. We talked to the crew before they left. I'm wondering if we have another one of those in the gate ready to go? all right. We're going to try to get that together. We're hoping to.

Mike Brooks, our law enforcement expert, has been on the phone with the FBI and in this situation even though we just talked about how remote the chance of terrorism is, the FBI is involved, isn't it, Mike?

MIKE BROOKS, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they are, Miles. I just got off the phone of the Dallas office of the FBI, with their spokesperson, Special Agent Lori Bailey. Special Agent Bailey told me they have set up a command post and they are treating this, right now, as a military aircraft down. And their main responsibility, right now, the FBI is assisting in containing any debris fields at all. They have mobilized right now over 30 agents and support staff, and along with their evidence response team, which is a team of highly trained professionals that will go out and contain the evidence and process it and work together with the military to try to, again, piece everything back together again. But there have been differing reports around the state, around the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, that there have been a number of debris fields, debris that has been raining down over that particular area.

They, right now, also are fielding calls from local law enforcement and citizens. I want to again stress, and the FBI wants to again stress, that if you do find something, call your local law enforcement, call your local fire department, but don't go near it. Don't touch it. As Miles was saying, the toxic witch's brew, if you will, that's contained in a shuttle -- and just leave it where it lies and call the local authorities. Miles?

O'BRIEN: Mike Brooks, let's just underscore the point one more time. The FBI is involved. We need to state this as clearly as we can for viewers. Terrorism is not really on the radar screen here. BROOKS: Not at all. Right now they're not even talking about anything at all about terrorism when I was talking with the FBI. They don't think that terrorism plays any role in this whatsoever.

O'BRIEN: The best we can hope, right now, is that the FBI and all the local authorities there are able to marshal their resources. It's got to be extensive, given the debris field. Keep people away from these pieces.

BROOKS: Very much so. The Dallas office of the FBI, they have smaller offices outside in Texarcana, in other small towns in around Texas, they call resident agencies. They're also getting those people and their office to work and coordinate with the local law enforcement on trying to locate any debris at all that's found in some of the even remote locations in and around the state of Texas. Miles?

O'BRIEN: All right, Mr. Brooks. Mike Brooks, please stay in close contact. Stay in touch with your sources for us, and keep us posted on what they know there, if you would.

This past week was a difficult week for NASA before this happened. January 27th, the anniversary of the Apollo I fire. You'll recall that fire on the launch pad in 1967. Killed three astronauts. Gus Grissom, Ed White, I'm sorry, I'm forgetting the third astronaut right now. You'll forgive me. In any case, it was also the anniversary of the space shuttle "Challenger's" explosion on January 28. And it was on that occasion that Rick Husband, the Commander of the space shuttle Columbia radioed down some words to Mission Control marking that moment.

(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)

HUSBAND: Well, things are going really great, Miles. We're having a great time up here. We had a great ride to orbit. All the activation of the experiments in the space lab went extremely well. We've got our space legs. Up and running.

(END AUDIO TAPE)

O'BRIEN: OK. That was not at all what I told you it was. That was a little piece of an interview I did with the crew on the Saturday after they launched. Rick Husband talking about their time in space. It might be worth at some point replaying a healthier chunk of that.

We have isolated the moment when mission control first became aware that there was a problem. The last message. all right. We're going to try to get all this stuff together. We're going to Judy Woodruff in Washington -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Thanks, Miles. Let me just say, very quickly at the outset here, how glad we are, as your colleagues, that you're on the job this morning, with your extensive experience and background in this area, on this terribly tragic day. With me, Miles, in the studio here in Washington, is Patty Davis, who covers aviation, and has been talking to people at the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. Patty, what are they saying at this point?

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Judy, the FAA says it has been in contact with NASA on this shuttle accident. The FAA and NTSB say that investigators are on standby ready to go to the crash site if there is -- can be a crash site. Looks like it's a very widely spread out site. If they're requested to go by NASA. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is the agency that investigates air crashes, played a broad role, a spokesperson said, in the shuttle "Challenger" explosion in the 1980s. The NTSB reconstructed parts of the shuttle for NASA, and did a lot of the metallurgical work, looking at the composition of the metal debris from that accident.

Aviation safety experts say what will be of critical importance in this accident, all the telemetry from the shuttle transmitted to Mission Control. The debris field, as I said, expected to be very, very wide since it broke up at some 200,000 feet in the air.

The FAA says it did not have contact with the shuttle at all. It was still very high in the air. Air traffic control would have made contact with the shuttle when it reached about 60,000 feet. A spokeswoman telling me that, at that point, air traffic control would have brought it into the air field just like any other moving aircraft out of the way. No reports from American pilots, southwest or northwest pilots, that they saw any of this unfold or anything unusual. Normally they would report such activity to their bases and also to the Federal Aviation Administration. Certainly an unfolding situation. We may hear more.

WOODRUFF: Patty, I just want to, while you're here, clarify. I know Miles has been talking about this all morning. There have been witnesses who saw what appeared to be commercial jetliners in the area. Just to be very clear, commercial aircraft all over the world fly at a much lower altitude than where the shuttle was understood to be.

DAVIS: A commercial aircraft being 30, 35,000 feet in the air. The shuttle at 200,000 feet. There's no way they could have come in contact with each other. The FAA saying, the value of perhaps an aircraft being in the area would be that perhaps a pilot may have seen something. But we haven't had any reports at this point of a pilot saying, yes I saw it and here's what I saw.

WOODRUFF: How much at this point -- normally there wouldn't be much contact, would there be, between NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration? I mean, clearly they have to coordinate to some extent, because when the shuttle's coming down, they don't want aircraft in the area.

DAVIS: Exactly. The Federal Aviation Administration puts TFRs, or temporary flight restrictions, into place around the air field, around the path where the shuttle would be coming in. And as I said, FAA is taking over, air traffic control-wise when that shuttle is coming in to land, because it's coming into an air field. And that's the FAA's job, to get the shuttle down. But it just did not get to the point where air traffic had stepped in. WOODRUFF: So just to summarize, again, Patty, what is it that officials both at the FAA and, I guess in particular now, the National Transportation Safety Board, will be doing? What is their job right now?

DAVIS: They're waiting to get a request from NASA. They don't know. They all have crash investigators, they all have experts in crashes. They would be providing a support role, it looks like, at this point since this is not a commercial space vehicle. This is a U.S. Government one. So NASA would most likely take the lead role in this. All these agencies would be supporting, bringing their experts in. Safety experts saying it's important that the NTSB, with its experts, get involved because they have expertise in this area.

WOODRUFF: Patty Davis, thanks very much. Miles, as I come back to you, I've been looking at the news wires as I know you have. Reading reports of people who live in Arkansas and Louisiana saying that they saw an explosion in the air. If you can help everyone understand a little bit better about the trajectory and where people in the United States might have first seen this happen and where it might have happened. It might not have been over Texas.

O'BRIEN: Hard to say, Judy. Except that we do know the point at which they lost communication. Obviously, Mission Control in Houston is in constant communication with that space shuttle from the moment of launch really all the way down to landing. It's not like the old days where you had those blackout periods in the Gemini and Apollo missions, when they didn't hear from them for some time and they would come back after the chutes open and everybody would breathe a sigh of relief. It's constant communication. So they can pinpoint the exact moment, and we're told it was right about 9:00 a.m. Eastern time.

We can pinpoint that location as being there, right over north central Texas, right around Dallas. As a matter of fact, that WFAA affiliate tape that we've been showing you, you actually see what starts out as the appearance of a normal space shuttle, the comet-like streak as you see it there. One fireball with one tail. You almost witness the whole thing happening. You see that kind of, the tail sort of acts in a strange way, and then, boom, all of a sudden you see those small pieces right behind there. If you put in the telestrater I could help out a little bit. Wait, and watch. OK, now additional pieces come off there. You're almost seeing it right that moment over Dallas/Ft. Worth. That is really as good a piece of evidence as we have right now. Juxtapose that with the time frame, 9:00 AM Eastern time.

WOODRUFF: So Miles, I just want to say what the Associated Press, anyway, is reporting, is that police near Shreveport, Louisiana, people, police in Arkansas. The only town I see quoted is Stamps, Arkansas. I'm not sure where that is, geographically saying, many people calling authorities saying they saw explosions in the sky. One man saying, I think we're being attacked. It's pretty clear there's some connection here.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Clearly. I mean, traveling west to east, that all fits with what we're seeing. At that altitude on a clear morning a big wide swath of the ground would have the opportunity to see this even if debris didn't actually rain down in that particular area. You would be able to see it from many miles at that altitude. I recall after the "Challenger" incident, I was in Tampa, Florida. Now the Challenger blew up right in about the same altitude, 150, 200,000 feet. We could see the cloud, the remnants of the "Challenger" from Tampa, 150 miles away. That gives you a sense of the clear view vision that people might have. That would jibe with all those reports that we're seeing.

We have with us from Dallas, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Senator from Texas. Senator Hutchison, good to have you with us.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), TEXAS: Thank you, Miles. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Tell us, have you had any direct contact with the search and rescue effort, at all? Tell us what you know about efforts to preserve the debris and keep people away from it.

HUTCHISON: I talked to the deputy administrator at NASA just to, first of all, offer my office if they needed to get here quickly. They're going to have search and rescue teams all over north and east Texas. They know that they have debris found in Nacogdoches, and certainly near Dallas. So I've talked to them, and they are just devastated by this, of course. We want to be helpful in every way that we can to try to get to the bottom of this. I am on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in the Senate. I'm sure that we will have hearings to talk about what went wrong and just try to learn from this tragic accident, so we will know what to expect in the future and try to make safety a first priority.

O'BRIEN: Senator, inevitably in the wake of all this, there will be discussion about the merits of putting people in harm's way in this manner, of taking the risk. Is it worth it?

HUTCHISON: Well, I think clearly any time we are pushing the envelope in research and technology, there are going to be tragedies. We have had the terrible "Challenger" tragedy before this. I would never want America to walk away from being in the forefront of the research. It has been wonderful for our country. But I do think we have to appreciate the test pilots who are willing to become astronauts, because they are taking a huge risk. They know they are. They're willing to do it to keep America in the forefront of the space research which has been so valuable to our country.

O'BRIEN: So, I guess then, you know, this could be one of those forks in the road when it comes to your role and Congress' role. One fork says, let's end manned space flight. The other fork would be, maybe it's time to start thinking about a new generation of vehicles which can carry humans to the final frontier.

HUTCHISON: Well, I think the new generation, the new mission of NASA is the way to go. I would never step back from America's preeminence in space. I think the next missions are going to be medically related, and certainly we want to know what is out there. Just look at what the satellite technology has brought to our country in security; it's making all the difference in our war, the predators and the ability to communicate through satellite. All of this happened because we have been willing to push that envelope and be first in space and make sure that we learn the technology that keeps us in the forefront. So walking away from space research would never be an option. What we have to do is make sure that we have a clear mission, that we fully fund NASA so that we have safety as a priority. And we need to appreciate these wonderful test pilots who are doing so much for our country. Their mission is every bit as important as our national security and national defense.

O'BRIEN: Well, that's an Amen moment. We'll leave it at that. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, we wish you well in the near term helping out with the search and rescue operation, and also in the long-term, as you deal with the investigation and the discussion which will follow in the months to come. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison from Dallas.

We have been getting some e-mails all morning from people who saw various things. Some of them with still photographs. Let's bring in one of those witnesses. Waylon Wagner from Henderson, Texas, is with us now. Mr. Wagner, can you hear me okay?

WAYLON WAGNER, WITNESS TO SHUTTLE BREAKUP: Yes, sir, I can.

O'BRIEN: If we could bring up your still image, which is on the computer in the control room there, we can look at the still image you captured. Tell me what you saw, heard, how you came to be outside with a camera?

WAGNER: Well, it was about 8:00 this morning. I went outside on my patio just to have my coffee, like I normally do. And our house faces basically the south. I was looking out toward the northwest. It was coming over our tree line. It was just a very thin vapor line at that time. And I thought, wow. What a beautiful meteor. You know?

O'BRIEN: You did not know that it was the shuttle necessarily?

WAGNER: No, sir. We had gone out to eat last night and we didn't know anything about the shuttle reentering today.

O'BRIEN: I see. Go ahead.

WAGNER: I was standing there. It just got bigger. You could see more smoke coming off of it. About that time I hollered at my wife. I said come out here and look at this meteor, you know? and she ran out there. She said, let me go get my camera. She ran back in, got her camera and took these pictures. These pictures here are -- might have been a minute or so after that, and these were more in the southeast, when these pictures were taken. She's got pictures of the vapor trail as they went in behind the trees.

O'BRIEN: Did you hear anything or was it so far away that you couldn't? WAGNER: Did what?

O'BRIEN: Did you hear anything unusual, or was it so far away that you couldn't hear anything unusual?

WAGNER,: No. At this time after we had taken the pictures and everything we hurried back into the house. We had the Weather Channel on. We thought well, if it's a meteor, maybe they'll show something. Then the newscaster that was on had come on and read us the deal about the shuttle. Well then we went immediately to your station, and then we saw it. And then, just maybe a minute or minute and a half, the house started rumbling.

O'BRIEN: Really?

WAGNER: We were going, oh, no.

O'BRIEN: Wow.

WAGNER: You know?

O'BRIEN: So the rumble sort of occurred sometime there after?

WAGNER: Yes, sir. We had already come back in the house and was watching the TV. And then we realized what it was, was the shuttle had reentered and everything. We stepped outside again and just listened to it. It was kind of like, oh, a big thundering noise like a thunder cloud would cause in the distance. It just kept on and on and on. We just kind of sat back down here, at the TV and looked at each other, in just awe that...

O'BRIEN: It might have just taken that much time for the sound to reach you, in other words?

WAGNER: Well, yes. It was probably at least a minute, you know. Minute to minute and a half. Then we started hearing the sound of it.

O'BRIEN: All right. We're going to leave it at that. Waylon Wagner, Henderson, Texas, thank you for sending that image, which shows, to my way of counting, one, two, three, four, -- at least five distinct big pieces of the space shuttle "Columbia," at that moment in time over Henderson, Texas.

CNN's Robert Novak sat down with the new NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, just last week, had a lengthy interview with him, talked a lot about where he was headed. One of the things that was uppermost on Sean O'Keefe's mind has been the announcement just now, little more than a week old, of a new educator mission specialist program. Really sort of the fulfillment of the teacher in space mission of Christa McAuliffe, space shuttle Challenger, 17 years ago. NASA finally getting to the stage where it was ready to begin thinking about flying teachers once again.

Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe's understudy, was due to fly at the end of this year, November. Additional teachers were encouraged to apply to fly in subsequent missions, about one a year, for the foreseeable future. It was a time when, at least last week, when Bob Novak sat down with Sean O'Keefe, there was a lot of talk about bringing civilians into space. What else did he have to say, Bob?

ROBERT NOVAK, CNN ANALYST: Miles, I had mentioned to Administrator O'Keefe that the astronauts used to be household words, and that people didn't really know the astronauts now. And I wondered if the lack of public interest and support in the space program was a problem of not knowing the astronauts, and whether they could get to know them better. He mentioned then Barbara Morgan. He also went on to say this, and this has a poignant sound now, as we listen to it. Let's listen to what Administrator O'Keefe said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN O'KEEFE, ADMINISTRATOR, NASA: We also need to get to know a lot more about, again, guys like Ken Bauersox, or Rick Husband, the guy who is commander of the current expedition that's underway right now. Those are the kinds of folks that we, I think, ought to admire, look up to, and realize the extraordinary capabilities they have, and the sacrifice that they make each and every day on our behalf, as explorers. It really is an extraordinary group of people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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