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CNN BREAKING NEWS

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

Aired February 1, 2003 - 19:00   ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These men and women assumed a great risk in a service to all humanity. In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Meanwhile, the probe into Columbia's deadly descent is already under way. NASA investigators are gathering data, and across Texas into Louisiana authorities are gathering pieces of fallen debris.

Please stay with CNN this evening for "SPECIAL REPORT" at 8:00 Eastern, "LARRY KING LIVE" at 9:00 Eastern, and other live coverage of the Columbia disaster. We are going to go throughout the night with live coverage.

In the meantime, Columbia headed for home, as all shuttles do, flying in fast and hard. In the days and weeks that follow, NASA will try to understand what caused the shuttle to break up just minutes short of her final destination.

CNN's Fredricka Whitfield traces Columbia's timeline.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Early Saturday, before sunrise in Florida, good weather was expected at the shuttle's landing site at the Kennedy Space Center. The mission's only glitch so far had been a pair of malfunctioning dehumidifiers, which raised temperatures inside the shuttle's laboratory payload module slightly higher than desired.

As the sun rose in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the early morning fog burned off, and Mission Control gave the seven astronauts the go-ahead to come home on time.

Mission Control radioed the instructions, "You are go for the de- orbit burn." Shortly afterwards, Columbia begins its descent. These were the last words heard from "Columbia." (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And, Columbia, Houston. We see your tire pressure messages, and we did not copy your last.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: At about 9:00 a.m. Eastern time, NASA officials lost contact with Columbia as it soared over north central Texas. The craft was at an altitude of about 200,000 feet, traveling at 12,500 miles per hour, and was about 16 minutes away from the estimated landing time.

The loss of contact was the first sign of any trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Communications with Columbia were lost at about 8:00 a.m. Central time, about 10 minutes ago.

WHITFIELD: Fearing the worst, NASA ordered flight controllers to pull out emergency procedures and ordered them to retain all their records. There was no further communication and no further tracking data. Debris was found across a large area of southeast Texas. NASA issued a warning that any debris in the area should not be handled because it's hazardous.

Fredricka Whitfield, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LIN: And Anderson, they're still finding debris across a couple of states, and it is a big job ahead. They're trying to secure those areas to make sure that people do not touch the debris, which of course can be toxic.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: That it can be. Carol Lin, thanks very much for that update.

We're going to go now to my colleague Lou Dobbs, who's standing by at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Anderson, thank you very much.

I'm here now with Congressman Dave Weldon, who is a great supporter and advocate of the space program, a great friend of NASA's, and in whose district many of the people who live and work here reside.

Congressman, I know that you've been here for some time. Your thoughts?

REP. DAVE WELDON (R), FLORIDA: Well, it's a tragic day for the families, the crew, it's a tragic day for the entire NASA and the entire community here at the Space Center, but it's also a tragic day for the nation. DOBBS: Indeed. The NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, has been briefing a number of congressional leaders, including yourself. Already the search has begun for answers. What can you tell us about what you've learned to this point?

WELDON: Well, many people were very concerned about that debris that hit the orbiter on launch, but I was reassured by Mr. O'Keefe and his assistant, Bill Readdy, that that sort of thing has happened on many missions in the past, and there was no significant damage to the orbiter.

So I think we really need to let the investigative teams do all of their work and try to get some answers here.

DOBBS: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is the manager, as you well know, the director of the shuttle program, focused on that issue, and obviously a man torn both with the loss of the astronauts and the shuttle, seeking already answers.

The issue of readings on these sensors, what was -- what is the best information you've gotten to this point as what was the earliest indication of what went wrong, and as specifically as you could?

WELDON: Well, what we were told when we were briefed was that there were several sensors that had gone dead. One of them measured the pressure in the tire on the landing gear. There was another sensor, I think, involving some hydraulic equipment. It went dead. And they tell us they don't know if the equipment was going bad, or the sensor, or the power to the sensor.

And then there was some sort of indication at the bond site between the tiles and the aluminum skin that there was some temperature going up, and then of course after that, they lost all data...

DOBBS: The tiles being, of course...

WELDON: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

DOBBS: ... the thermal tiles...

WELDON: The friction tiles, yes.

DOBBS: ... from reentry to protect the aircraft, the spacecraft, from the high heat that's generated.

What is your thought as to what this means right now? I know we're all in the midst of loss, we're in the midst of grief over this tragedy. What are your thoughts as to what it means for the U.S. space program?

WELDON: Well, my major concern was the station. We have a shuttle mission that was supposed to go up March 1 to the space station. And I've been reassured that there's enough supplies on the station, and that they campaign wait till sometime in June. We also have this redundant capability with the Russians. They can go up there and bring materials and exchange crews.

So I was...

DOBBS: Aboard Soyuz.

WELDON: ... assured -- just -- aboard Soyuz or Progress vehicles. So I was assured that we could keep the station going OK, and that, of course, is part of our space program. You know, I'd like to see the shuttle return to flight safely, and I want to take whatever amount of time is necessary to reassure us all that it can fly safely.

DOBBS: After the dreadful Challenger tragedy in 1986, it was years before the shuttles returned to space flight. What is your best assessment now?

WELDON: Well, I'm hoping it won't be years, hoping that we can put the resources behind investigating this, that we can get answers fairly quickly and put the best minds behind the necessary changes that have to be made to make sure it doesn't happen again. And hopefully it will not be -- I think it was 32 months last time. And hopefully it won't be that long.

DOBBS: Congressman Dave Weldon, we thank you very much on what I know is a very difficult day for you.

WELDON: It sure has been.

DOBBS: Congressman, thank you very much.

WELDON: Good to be with you, Lou.

DOBBS: Now back to you, my colleague Anderson Cooper, in Atlanta -- Anderson.

COOPER: Lou, thanks very much.

We're going to go to Kelly Wallace, who's standing by in Jerusalem, as she has been reporting for us throughout the day.

Kelly, obviously reaction there to the death of Columbia space shuttle astronaut Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut chosen to fly on the space shuttle. What sort of reaction are you hearing?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, Colonel Ramon's experience was viewed by many Israelis as a ray of hope after months and months of violence. So as you can imagine, his tragic and sudden death hitting this country very hard.

The latest information, we are told there will be a special tribute for Colonel Ramon at the Sunday meeting, of course, headed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The U.S. ambassador to Israel will be there as well.

Colonel Ramon really was a hometown hero, becoming the first Israeli astronaut to go into outer space, 48 years old, spent his career in the military, fought for Israel in two wars. Also took part in the mission, the bombing mission of a nuclear reactor under construction in Iraq in 1981.

So throughout Israel today, people remembering him. He is the son of Holocaust survivors as well. And so many Israelis saying he is a symbol for Jewish people all over the world.

COOPER: Well, Kelly, he had also brought a drawing that was made by a young man in one of the death camps. Tell me about that.

WALLACE: Exactly, Anderson. He took with him to space a drawing from a 14-year-old, a pencil drawing, a 14-year-old Jewish boy who was killed during the Holocaust. So he took this with him to space, obviously a very powerful moment, being the son of Holocaust survivors, but a very important symbol, really, to Jewish people all over the world.

And we understand also, Anderson, that Colonel Ramon was not really a very religious man. He was more of a secular man. But he did want to follow certain Jewish traditions in space, so he observed Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, and also observed kosher traditions while he was in space. And that was another important symbol.

He knew this was a big step, really, obviously, the first Israeli astronaut in space, and so he wanted to take the Jewish heritage there as well, Anderson.

COOPER: And that, and that he certainly did. We're running pictures from a documentary that they actually spoke to the director of the documentary shortly ago, Dr. Raymond Mead (ph), about Colonel Ramon, that he was still making, really, for the last four years.

Also Kelly, I also have a quote which I read from the Associated Press that a friend from high school said that Colonel Ramon had sent her e-mails from space, talking about, quote, "the divine happiness of looking at earth," and this woman says that he wrote that he'd like to keep floating in space for the rest of his life.

Obviously someone who has been highly motivated to get into the space program. He became an astronaut in 1997, and he's been living in Houston with his family ever since, isn't that right?

WALLACE: Exactly, in Houston with his wife, Rona, and his four children, as he's been training there. And the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Daniel Ayalon, saying earlier in the day that his family really enjoyed being there, going to school, then Texas, and enjoyed the experience.

And just going back, though, to talking about Colonel Ramon, you know, it has really struck a big chord for the entire community, the entire Israeli public. And as we've been saying throughout the day, many people -- I was here, Anderson, and there was tremendous coverage when he lifted off into space. The front page of every newspaper, on every Israeli television station.

And after weeks and months of violence, it was viewed as one piece of really good news after lots of bad news. And so again, it is hitting people so hard tonight, sadness from every part of this country, Anderson.

COOPER: We're actually playing some of that video right now of Colonel Ramon showing the drawing made by the 14-year-old boy in a concentration camp, a drawing that he carried with him in space, which was very important to him to bring, and which he no doubt had with him today as the Columbia came to its terrible end.

As you walk on the street, I know you've got some sound bites from some people. What sort of things were people saying? Or if you want, you could just play the sound bites. What were people saying to you on the street?

WALLACE: Well, I don't know if we have the sound bites available. If we do, we can run them. People were saying everything from, again, it was a first step for an Israeli, a Jewish man. People shocked. One woman, I thought, really said it all, a woman in Tel Aviv, who said, "Nothing seems to go right in this country, nothing at all."

I think we have some of that sound bite (UNINTELLIGIBLE) together. Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was the first astronaut to observe Shabbat in space. He took kosher food. It was a real beautiful experience for the Jewish people. It was something that the Jewish people could be very proud of.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were all so proud of Ilan Ramon, and the whole team.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was shocked, you know, and I'm sorry about by everybody, not only about Ilan, about everybody. It's a shame, you know, really.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: And again, going back to the e-mails that Colonel Ramon was sending to his family, Anderson, his brother told us about an e- mail he received from Colonel Ramon just two days ago. And this really a powerful message, his brother saying, quote, "He was so happy that he didn't want to come back to earth." And he didn't.

Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Our colleague Judy Woodruff was reporting earlier that President Bush has made a call to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. I understand that Sharon has also called the father of Colonel Ramon.

WALLACE: He did, he spoke with the father earlier this evening, again, to express his condolences. The Israeli government also making sure that the entire extended family, Colonel Ramon's father, his brother, anyone else who wanted to go, could go to the Johnson Space Center in Texas to console Colonel Ramon's wife and his four children.

And about that phone call, Anderson, yes, President Bush and the prime minister speaking. It was a brief phone call, but powerful exchange of messages. We understand President Bush saying this was a tragic day for Israel, for the United States, for science. He called Colonel Ramon a brave Israeli citizen and extended his condolences to the people of Israel.

And the prime minister again saying that the hearts of the Israeli people and the American people were bonded together. And he said that we are all sort of joining hands and praying together, and also extending condolences to the American people for their losses tonight, Anderson.

COOPER: Kelly, just my final question to you, also we're getting reaction from Palestinians as well, is that not correct?

WALLACE: Yes, yes, reaction coming in from the Palestinian community. The Palestinian senior negotiator, Saeb Erekat, in fact, calling us earlier this evening to say that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Authority expressing their condolences to the six American families and to the one Israeli family who lost loved ones.

And then also, we are told, Yasser Arafat has sent a letter to U.S. President Bush extending his condolences to the American people. As you know, Anderson, these two men have never met. I don't believe they have either spoken either. But the Palestinians wanting to convey their condolences to the American people and to the Israeli people after this tragedy, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Kelly Wallace live in Jerusalem. Thanks very much, Kelly.

We're going to go now to John Zarrella, who's standing by at the Kennedy Space Center. John, who's covered a lot of shuttle missions, covered the Challenger disaster as well.

John, what are your thoughts?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Anderson. You know, I was here when Challenger exploded 17-plus years ago now, and I remember down by the review clock down there and down by the flag, when Challenger went up, and of course we all watched it, and we all watched it disappear into this cloud of smoke, but from the ground level, of course, we could not imagine or fathom what had happened at that point.

And I recall the chaos that ensued here at the Kennedy Space Center, as all of us were running around and scrambling and trying to get whatever information we could, and information was very difficult to come by.

And now, jumping forward to this event today, I commented earlier with Lou Dobbs that I thought that, you know, one of the things, of course, that NASA learned out of the tragedy of Challenger was how to better handle these situations in the eventuality that they happened. And I think in the back of everyone's mind at NASA, while they hoped and prayed that it would never happen again, that it is a very complicated vehicle, and there are all kinds of things that could go wrong.

And they knew better this time how to handle this situation. The information was tremendously forthcoming today during the briefings. Everything was far more organized here at the press center than it was back 17-plus years ago. No less a tragedy, no less a somber feeling here, but people had their jobs to do, and they went about and did them.

And the plans that were laid into place following Challenger came into play today, unfortunately, but certainly it seemed that everything was far more organized.

And I think that the investigation that will ensue will also have benefited, tragically enough, from "Challenger." They know what to do, they know how to go about the business of gathering the data and the information and assembling the teams that will be needed. And they may well call upon people, Anderson, who worked on the Challenger commission, and who were involved in that investigation, to lend their expertise again here in this very, very tragic incident, Anderson.

COOPER: Well, John, obviously this investigation is just getting started. It will be taking many days and weeks and months, no doubt, if not perhaps longer than that, even. John Zarrella, thanks very much, joining us right now.

We're going to go to Patty Davis, who is standing by in Washington, has some information on the investigation -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, a massive debris search is now under way across several states. Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is coordinating the federal government's response and recovery of that debris from the shuttle breakup. The military guarding and searching for debris using planes, boats, and helicopters.

The National Transportation Safety Board this evening sending vehicle structure and systems experts to help. Now, NTSB crash investigators helped piece together the debris from the in-flight breakup of the TWA 800 crash, and this debris field, possibly 100 times bigger than that.

NASA, meanwhile, taking steps today, impounding data to make sure that it keeps everything it needs to so its communication from the shuttle, data from the shuttle, so that it can look at that and use that to help in the investigation.

The FAA has put a huge no-fly zone into place from Texas to Louisiana, 40 miles wide by 160 miles long, that to make it easier for recovery teams to do their job. And today a massive debris cloud hanging in the air off the Louisiana coast, heading towards the Gulf. The FAA telling pilots simply to keep an eye out for that, Anderson. COOPER: Patty, let's talk about the investigation a little bit. Exactly who is running it? I mean, we talk about the FAA, the NTSB, FEMA. I assume FEMA is the one overall in charge. Who's the go-to person on this?

DAVIS: Well, I think that's kind of unclear right now. FEMA looking to do the first response, to do the recovery efforts of the debris. Now, NASA, of course, will launch its own investigation into what happened, the cause of this. It announced today that it has also set up an independent board to look at the cause of this crash. That involves agencies, the military, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration.

So you're going to have a couple parallel investigations going on here, that independent board pretty much set up to make sure that it has no dog in this fight, it's just in there independently, perhaps finding some things that NASA wouldn't find. We have -- we don't know.

COOPER: Well, Patty, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I mean, it might not be known at this point. Earlier on in the day, there had been some talk that Tom Ridge was going to be sort of overseeing the overall efforts right now, I guess because FEMA's becoming part of his department come March 1. Is there any more on that at this point?

DAVIS: That's true, big question, will he be calling the shots on this? A new agency in charge of domestic incidents like this one, as well as terrorism. I just think we don't have, we don't have the final word on that. I don't have the final word on that...

COOPER: OK.

DAVIS: ... Anderson.

COOPER: And just -- if you do know, is there a sense of how long these sorts of investigations take? I mean, are we talking months, are we talking years? Do we know at this point?

DAVIS: Well, if you look at the TWA 800 accident, that took literally years. So with an accident of this magnitude, one would expect months if not years.

COOPER: And I remember in that invest, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) often they literally tried to read -- to put together the airship again. Is that going to be attempted here, do we know?

DAVIS: Well, you know, that's interesting, they did put that back together, the NTSB had it in a hangar and put pieces back together and was able to establish that it was the center fuel tank.

And I think NTSB also told me today that it was involved in piecing together the shuttle "Challenger." So certainly NTSB will be instrumental. They've got experience. They'll most likely be trying to do that again.

The problem here, though, this shuttle broke up at 200,000 feet up in the sky, and you can imagine how wide this debris field must be. It's going to be awfully hard to collect all those pieces. But that's why all these agencies are out there right now cordoning off areas, that big no-fly zone in place right now to keep aircraft out of there. They want to keep people from touching this debris so they can gather it together.

And the hope would be to piece it together again.

COOPER: You know, it's interesting, when there is a plane crash, everyone by now knows about the black box and the flight data recorder, that's what people look for. In their -- the press conference earlier today, NASA officials were assaying they are looking for what they referred to as the black box.

But the shuttle really is plugged -- so plugged in to Mission Control, I mean, is there actual information in the debris that they need? Or do they have all the information already in the data in all the machines and the equipment that they already have in Mission Control?

DAVIS: Well, you know, I was surprised to hear the NASA official saying that there is a black box of sorts. They've got a data recorder, a voice recorder as well. But he said more importantly is that streaming information that is coming 24/7 from this mission into mission control, and their recording on that. That is going to be just invaluable, and that is probably what's going to be what's providing the best clues here for the investigation, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Patty Davis in Washington, thanks very much. Appreciate it. In this ongoing investigation a lot, a lot to cover in the incoming days and weeks.

We're going to show you a live shot right now of Cape Canaveral. This is a really beautiful shot right now, sort of belies the tragedy that has occurred here some 10 -- almost 10 1/2 hours ago. That was live at Cape Canaveral.

We're going to be bringing you a special report in about 35 minutes, "Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy," that's with Miles O'Brien, Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff, and Lou Dobbs, that's tonight at 8:00 Eastern time, 5:00 p.m. Pacific time. Miles is going to be here in Atlanta, Wolf Blitzer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Judy Woodruff in Washington, as she has been all day, and Lou Dobbs manning his post at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Hope you stay with us for that special report, "Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy."

We're going to check in right now with Suzanne Malveaux, who's at the White House and has been there throughout much of the day. Suzanne, what's the latest?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you know, Anderson, this is really one of the toughest jobs that the president has, and he is again once faced with that job of bringing the nation together in time of tragedy. The president came forward saying it was a day of mourning, of reflection, of prayer. President Bush addressing the nation, actually ordering that all of the flags, federal flags and buildings here even at the White House be lowered at half-staff to mourn the loss of those on the shuttle.

It was earlier today that the president was at Camp David. He was notified by his chief of staff, Andy Card, about the tragedy. He decided to come back to the White House early, where he addressed the nation. He said that, "The entire nation grieves with you," this to the families of the victims, that it is a "cause for which they died which will continue, our journey into space will go on."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: The president, before making that address, called, a private call, conference call, to the victims' families at the Kennedy Space Center. They were all gathered around a speakerphone. The president, we were told, quote emotional during that call. White House aides telling us and he was saying here, "We express our love and appreciation for all those who died today. I want the loved ones to know there are millions of Americans praying for you, including me and Laura."

We are also told that he said, "It was an incredibly tough day for you. May God bless you all. I wish I was there to hug, cry, and comfort you." We are told by someone who was in the room with the president at that time when he made that call, standing at his desk in the Oval Office, that he left his staff momentarily, a rather poignant moment. He was somber, and he left to the residence, where he excused himself for some time, and then returned to be briefed by advisers.

We were also told that the president talked with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to give his condolences for the Israeli who was lost on the shuttle. And we were also told that the president received a number of calls from world leaders, including world leaders from Mexico, France, Russia, and Canada.

I should also mention too, Anderson, it was quite a busy day here at the White House. We saw national security adviser Condoleezza Rice coming and going. We also saw chief of staff Andy Card, as you know, the Situation Room was up and operational in full gear today, as well as the new secretary of homeland security, that being Governor Tom Ridge.

He was here, and one of the first duties that he has been charged with through executive order of the president is to designate and to coordinate just what is going to happen in times like these, domestic crises, not only in situation, a terrorist situation.

He designated FEMA as the lead agency to take on recovery as well as NASA taking on the investigative role, Anderson.

COOPER: Suzanne, I'm wondering, Kelly Wallace earlier was reporting that the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat, has been trying to send his condolences. I'm wondering if the White House had received that or had any comment, public comment about that.

MALVEAUX: We haven't received any public comment about it, but we do know that Yasser Arafat sent a letter to the White House. We're not really sure whether or not it's been received or just how it has been received. But the president's spending his day in the residence with the first lady after addressing the nation, emphasizing that this is really a time of unity, not only for the American people but for the world as wells.

COOPER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House, thanks very much. The tragedy certainly touches all of us.

We are joined now in Washington by a man by the name of Michael Bohn. He was director of the Situation Room in the Reagan White House when the Challenger disaster occurred in 1986.

Mr. Bohn, thanks very much for being with us.

MICHAEL BOHN, AUTHOR, "NERVE CENTER": Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.

COOPER: Back in 1986, take us back into the Situation Room. What was it like being in that room at that terrible time?

BOHN: Well, it was just as shocking as it was this morning when I watched it on TV. The network TV -- the TV networks had not covered the shuttle in 1986 as they had in the early days, and so CNN was really the only one that covered the launch. And I just remember seeing the Challenger explode.

And there is no domestic Situation Room at the White House. There's only one, and we had to deal with it, whether it had to do with national security affairs or not.

And I just ran upstairs, and I broke the most sacred rule in the White House, which is, I opened doors without an appointment. I stuck my head in John Poindexter's office and I said, "The shuttle has exploded, turn on the TV." I went down to George Bush's office, told him the same thing, the chief of staff, Don Regan, and we all went into the Oval Office to watch the Challenger explode.

COOPER: And what happens then? I mean, obviously you don't have an eye into this White House, you're not there. But from your own experiences, what is the procedure when something like this happens? After you've knocked on those doors, after you've barged in and say, Turn on the TV, what then?

BOHN: Well, the SitRoom is first and foremost the president's alert center. It's his current intelligence center, and it's been that way since 1961, when Kennedy established it. So the really responsible people that deal with that are the duty officers, the staff of the SitRoom. And their first and foremost responsibility is to funnel information upstairs to the national security adviser, in this case the chief of staff's office, because it's a domestic issue.

And funnel whatever they can get their hands on, from NASA, from FAA, from the Pentagon. Of course there's this added specter of terrorism, and so they had to ask a few questions of the CIA and the intelligence community.

But the fundamental thing is to get information and keep it flowing upstairs.

COOPER: And in a time like that, I mean, how long does it take for the information to get to you? I mean, obviously it comes in much like in a newsroom, it comes in in drips and drabs from various sources. But do you have -- how quickly do you get all the information?

BOHN: Well, today everything works at CNN speed, as the director of the SitRoom said during the Clinton administration. In 1986, we had to go out and get it. We had to set up telephone lines to the Kennedy and Johnson spacecraft center, put them on a speaker box, and ask for information. I invited the administrator of NASA to come over and use my office, because he in those days didn't have the command center that the government agencies have today.

So it's much faster today. The SitRoom knows things about as fast as you know them, but of course there's plenty of other sources of information.

COOPER: Michael Bohn, appreciate you joining us. It is an interesting look into a very difficult time, both back in 1986 with the Challenger disaster, and what must have been a terrible event today for the Bush White House. Michael Bohn, thanks very much for joining us.

As Judy Woodruff has been reporting all day long, President Bush was at Camp David when he got the news. He was advised by Andy Card, who came in, told him. He immediately returned to the White House, where he gave a briefing earlier today, made a very poignant statement from the Cabinet Room at the White House.

We're going to get an update right now from Carol Lin, who's standing by in the newsroom. Carol, what's the latest?

LIN: Anderson, we want to take a look back at today's horrible, tragic events, and we want to do it step by step, because so much has happened.

For example, just before 9:00 a.m. Eastern, Columbia and its seven-member crew were flying more than 200,000 feet over north central Texas at more than 12,000 miles per hour. Then suddenly, at 9:00 a.m., NASA's Mission Control loses all data and voice contact with the shuttle and the crew. At the same time, residents of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana report hearing a big bang and seeing flames in the sky.

Nine-sixteen a.m. Eastern time, Columbia is expected to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It does not.

At the same time, Mission Control immediately declares a contingency plan for the space shuttle. Search and rescue teams in central Texas are alerted to what has happened. At about 9:17 Eastern, immediately after Columbia misses its landing window, NASA alerts President Bush and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

Following this, President Bush leaves Camp David for the White House. Director Ridge begins calling authorities in central Texas and nearby states about fallen debris.

With more information gathered from data and pictures, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe makes a statement. He calls the incident, quote, "a tragic day for the NASA family, the families of the astronauts, and the nation."

Less than an hour later, at 2:08 p.m., President Bush speaks to the nation. He honors the fallen astronauts, saying they had "a high and noble purpose in life." He says, "Because of their courage and idealism, we will miss them all the more."

And please stay with CNN for live coverage of the Columbia disaster throughout the evening.

Anderson, there is so much to talk about. I know that you've been covering the ground, and we've got teams all over the country. But still they are not confirming, they still won't know for several days if not months exactly what happened to the shuttle.

COOPER: Well, that is certainly true. The investigation, as many of our reporters have been telling us, could go on for years, even. It is simply too soon to tell.

Carol Lin, thanks very much.

We're going to go now to Ed Lavandera, who is still in Nacogdoches, Texas, where there has been a lot of debris on the ground.

Ed, what are you seeing?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, really Nacogdoches is just a, just one of the many areas that has seen debris fall over the area over the course of the last -- of today. And a lot of people here, this is in downtown Nacogdoches, which in a weird way has kind of become a central gathering spot for a lot of the residents here. Early on throughout the day, we saw a lot of people just gathering here.

There's a small piece of debris in the middle of this parking lot that has been roped off, and now military officials are standing guard over it as awaiting for someone to come by and pick it up here. We do understand we have CNN crews in the areas just outside of Nacogdoches who say that there are NASA officials in the area.

And now we begin the process of trying to figure out which pieces of debris will be collected. At first, and as we've heard NASA officials say, gathering this evidence will be very crucial to them as they -- they're able to put together, as they're able to continue their investigation as to what might have happened today.

So very crucial work. Also the warning from authorities that perhaps some of these pieces might be toxic in some way, so they're urging people to stay away. We have heard reports from hospitals in the area where people have checked themselves in just because they happen to have handled some of these pieces earlier on in the day before a lot of this news broke out that they shouldn't touch it, and so a lot of people getting themselves checked out, and nothing major to report from that.

But we do also understand that there are reports now that body parts have been found southeast here of Nacogdoches, so, you know, kind of a exclamation point there to what we already known has -- know to be a tragic day here in the east Texas area.

And many of the people here have started coming out very early and sharing their stories among each other. It's almost become kind of an odd scene at times, where we've seen fragments of material, where people have come with cameras, video cameras, to take pictures of the scenes that are out here.

We saw one portion near downtown here where there was a -- just a small, tiny piece of debris on a sidewalk, and it couldn't have been more than three inches wide and three inches tall. And there must have been a group of about 20 people hovering over it, nobody touching it, but everybody taking pictures of it.

And that's kind of what we've seen here all day. So kind of an odd twist to what has been happening here throughout the day, Anderson.

COOPER: OK, Ed, we talked to another reporter nearby who was saying -- who showed us actually video of a hearse, some officials moving a, basically a body bag. Obviously there is a lot of very gruesome work ahead for these investigators.

I'm curious, though, Ed, about what sort of resources local authorities there have to deal with this wide pattern of debris. I spoke earlier with a woman by the name of Dorothy Langford. She was in her home when the explosion happened, and a piece of debris landed in her yard. Police came to the scene, but then they left. They cordoned off the area, and they basically left. And she's still in her home with this piece of debris in her front yard sort of waiting for federal authorities to show up.

Are authorities spread very thin there in terms of trying to police, secure all these areas? LAVANDERA: I think what they've -- what has happened, they've gotten hundreds of phone calls today reporting debris in many locations. We've seen in some situations where private land owners have cordoned off the area themselves, and then they've called in the report. We do understand that all local and state authorities are working the situation and responding to all these calls as best they can.

There's also help come -- that has come in from the Fort Hood Army Base, which is in central Texas, just a couple of hours away from here as well, that are being lent in to help out in this situation.

But I think also they're in the process of categorizing exactly which pieces of debris they should visit first. And there's some pieces that are bigger than others, and so perhaps that's kind of the way they're sending out the troops in terms of being able to collect all of this.

But we do see and remember, Anderson, that this area, parts of east Texas can be very rural, very woody area, lot of forest as well, so there might be debris scattered across areas it could take some days to reach.

COOPER: All right. Ed Lavandera in Nacogdoches, Texas, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

We're going to go now to Bob Franken, who earlier was at the Air and Space Museum, get some -- getting feedback from people visiting that monument in Washington. Bob?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Still here, Anderson. The museum is closed, but I wanted to give you a sense of it. You can see behind me this section here was devoted to the Columbia shuttle mission. That's a model of it in back of me, of course.

This is the world's busiest museum, 9 million people-plus come here a year, mostly to celebrate flight, but today they were flocking here to mourn.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... continue to meet with you and keep you informed of just how this is progressing...

FRANKEN (voice-over): Here at the display established to highlight this Columbia space shuttle mission, they gathered in front of the screen set up to monitor Mission Control. Now they were watching sad history unfold.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I heard it, I almost thought, Is -- am I watching a repeat of the Challenger? Because -- but it said it was live news, and I was really stunned. And I thought, Oh, my gosh, it's happened again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's horrific. It's how do you explain, you know, your family members are gone in an instant. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In an instant. You're waiting for them to come down, and now they're gone.

FRANKEN: Among those with the most poignant reactions, the visitors from Israel. Their countryman, Ilan Ramon, was the first Israeli astronaut on a U.S. space mission. It had been the rare occasion for national happiness in these tumultuous times. But now...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a great loss, it's a tragedy. As an Israeli, I mourn and grieve with the families and the friends of the crew that was lost. Of course, with the Israeli and American people. It's a bad day. But I hope in the future, it'll have a more successful ending than this one.

FRANKEN: The muted sadness here at this impromptu shrine to the disaster was echoed nearly everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pure shock, disbelief. This is unreal. I mean, you're -- you come out here expecting to see a shuttle land, and it's just not there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We feel so sad and sorry for the families of people that have been lost.

FRANKEN: As the tragedy sank in, the first flowers appeared at the museum's model of "Columbia."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN: The flowers are expected to grow tomorrow. It's -- in a certain way, Anderson, space flight even here has been considered routine, because there have been so many years of safe returns, until now, Anderson.

COOPER: Bob, you know, I was looking at the biography of a lot of these astronauts, and not only do they have extraordinary resumes, extraordinary careers and interests behind them, but just about every one of them, from the time they were a child, they dreamed of being an astronaut.

I'm interested to see if you ran into any kids today at the museum, and got any sense of whether or not this kind of a thing diminishes their interest in space, their enthusiasm for, you know, dreaming of one day being an astronaut.

FRANKEN: You know, it was -- it is such a good question, and it's the first thing you do think of as you were talking to the children. I talked to any number of them, little girls and little boys, and a lot of them said, yes, at one time that is something they wanted to do. But none of them said that this would cause them not to do it. They said, as a matter of fact, on a couple of occasions, that it would sort of rededicate them.

I was really quite moved by the very, very mature reaction I got from so many of the kids, who expressed a very, very quiet, somber reaction, of course, shock and all that kind of stuff, but said almost to a person that all this means is the space program must go forward.

COOPER: It makes me think too of -- I remember seeing a CNN report sometime in the last two weeks or so about a group of kids in Seattle who were -- they had an experiment with ants in an ant farm that was actually on this shuttle. I can only wonder what they are thinking at this moment.

Bob Franken, thanks a lot, a really nice report. Thank you.

We're going to go back to Michael Bohn, who we talked to just a few moments ago in Washington, the man who was the director of what they call the SitRoom, the Situation Room, in the White House. He was director of the Situation Room back in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger had -- met its disaster.

Michael, thanks for coming back with us.

I'm curious to know what you think went on in the SitRoom in the White House today before President Bush was summoned back from Camp David.

BOHN: Sure. Every time a crisis breaks over the White House horizon, the duty officers kind of go into automatic. They know what to do, and they know how to handle things like this. And in my research for my book, "Nerve Center," I realized that the process really hasn't changed much since the Cuban missile crisis.

The first thing they do is alert everyone on the White House staff what they know about. And then they try to get more information. Were there any survivors? Was there a terrorist angle to it?

And then they get ready for the phone calls. You've mentioned on several occasions that the president called Ariel Sharon. The Situation Room organizes all calls from the president to foreign heads of state. So they knew they were going to get ready for that.

And they were the ones that organized the president's return calls to all of the foreign heads of states that called with their condolences.

Then they knew they would probably be involved in the connection of the president to the families, helping the White House switchboard and the White House communications agency get that connection to those people.

Once things slowed down a little bit, they probably sat down and write -- wrote a summary of what happened, what they knew about so far, and sent that upstairs.

It's a pretty set routine for them, whether it's a Challenger explosion or today's event or a terrorist incident.

COOPER: And I suppose in a situation like this, knowing what you don't know is almost as important as knowing what you know. BOHN: You have to report negatives, because a partial report suggests there might be something else out there. So every time you tell somebody upstairs what you know, you tell them what you don't know and how hard you're trying to get it.

COOPER: And is it a scene of -- I mean, you talked about it almost being a routine. Obviously you and the people who are in the Situation Room now are professionals. But, I mean, is there adrenaline? Is there excitement? Is there fear? What is it like?

BOHN: Oh, absolutely. And there's many examples of that over the years. When Reagan was shot, there was a good bit of confusion and fear and ignorance in that room. Other instances are just as bad. At 9/11 there was a good bit of fear, because everyone evacuated the White House except the SitRoom staff.

And people gravitate to the SitRoom during these circumstances, mainly to find out what's going on, pick up on the latest, talk to so- and-so. It's not only the White House alert center, it oftentimes turns into the White House help desk.

COOPER: I bet it does. Michael Bohn, I appreciate you coming back and talking with us. A rare look inside a room a lot of people have heard about. Appreciate your perspective, thank you very much, Michael Bohn, thanks.

We're going to go now to a -- one of the last interviews that Miles O'Brien did with four of the astronauts who were aboard today's flight of the "Columbia. I believe this is an interview he did with the four who, while they were in orbit, while they were in space, took place just a couple days ago. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Say hello to the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, now traveling above the Pacific at 17,300 miles an hour, 150 miles above us, waving to us.

Let's give you an idea of who's who. This is Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli ever to fly in space. Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist, on her second mission. Rick Husband, the commander, second mission. Laurel Clark, another space rookie, bookended by space rookies here.

Commander Husband, let's talk first of all about how everything's going. You got a menagerie of animals up there, too many scientific experiments to enumerate here. But generally speaking, how's it going?

RICK HUSBAND, MISSION COMMANDER: Well, things are going really great, Miles. We're having a great time up here. We had a great ride to orbit, and all the activation of the experiments in the spacehab went extremely well. And we're really -- we've got our space legs, and up and running.

O'BRIEN: Send it over to Colonel Ramon, please. Colonel Ramon, I'm curious what it was like when you had that opportunity on one of those early passes to look down at your home country and the Middle East in general. What were your thoughts at that time?

ILAN RAMON, ISRAELI ASTRONAUT: I tell you the truth, it was pretty fast. It was actually today, and it went too fast. It was partly or mostly cloudy, so I couldn't see much of Israel, just the north of Israel. And of course I was excited.

O'BRIEN: What are your thoughts, now that you're in space, about what it represents to your nation?

RAMON: I think it's a great path and an opening for great science from our nation. And hopefully for our neighbors in the Middle East.

O'BRIEN: Was the launch what you expected?

RAMON: The launch was pretty exciting, yes, a lot of noise, shaking. But after about a minute or so, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and it went pretty smoothly.

O'BRIEN: Security was very tight, lot of concern before you ever fired off those solid rocket boosters. Did you ever -- how aware of that were you? How much of an added concern was that for you?

RAMON: Well, since NASA security and the county security were unbelievable and helpful, I didn't have any doubts that everything will go pretty good, and so did it -- so it did. And I was aware of this. I got (UNINTELLIGIBLE) my family, and I knew exactly what's going on there.

O'BRIEN: It's interesting, when you consider the risks astronauts take to be concerned about that on top of anything else.

Send it over to Mission Specialist Chawla. I'm just curious if you could share for us a moment of what it's like being in that spacehab. It's a scientific juggling act, isn't it?

KALPANA CHAWLA, MISSION SPECIALIST: It really is, Miles. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) two, three, four experiments simultaneously. But it's a lot of fun, it's very stimulating. And we are enjoying it. The module is quite big, roomy, and we were able to put it in a very good configuration for our work on the very first day. So it's been working out really well.

O'BRIEN: And let's send it over to Laurel Clark. Laurel, is -- all these experiments working? You have 800-some experiments. They couldn't all be working as planned.

LAUREL CLARK, MISSION SPECIALIST: Well, things are going very smoothly. As expected, there's some minor glitches, and the eight minutes that it took us to get to orbit, we trained months and months for, and didn't have to use any of that preparation other being aware and ready.

For our science experiments, on the other hand, it's very fortunate that we've had such thorough training with such an excellent team on the ground. With the minor glitches that have occurred, we've been able to take care of them. And the team tell us on the ground they're getting tons of incredible data.

O'BRIEN: Let's close with Colonel Ramon. I have an e-mail question for you, colonel. This comes from Great Britain. "Don't you think it would have been a powerful evocation and image of humanity if you had flown with a Palestinian or an Arab crew member?" And he wishes good fortune to you. Had you thought much about that?

RAMON: Well, as you probably know, an Arab man already flew in the '80s. So I'm not the first one from there. And I feel like I represent (UNINTELLIGIBLE), of course, Israel and the Jews, but I represent also all our neighbors. And I hope it will contribute to the whole world, and especially to our Middle East neighbors.

O'BRIEN: All right, we're going to have to leave it at that. The crew, or at least a portion, the awakened crew of the "Columbia." There are some of them asleep right now, three of them in bunks in the mid-deck. Thanks very much for taking a little bit of time while you're on orbit to visit us from the flight deck of the space shuttle "Columbia." We wish you well as this space marathon, 24/7 -- Oh, my goodness, look at that little chalice going by there.

Anyway, thanks very much, and have a great mission. We appreciate it. It's always fun to watch that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Very sad indeed.

We have just received some -- a sound bite from the father of Colonel Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who perished today aboard the space shuttle "Columbia," the father, and his name is Eliezar Wolfenman. He spoke earlier today from Israel. Here's some of what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't believe it's happened. He was -- I was so happy for him, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He is (UNINTELLIGIBLE), because there is talk of his life, and this was happened.

I have a connection with him in e-mail, you know, in just two days ago, I got the last e-mail from him. And he was so happy. And he said that he's so happy that he doesn't want to come back to earth. And he didn't come back to earth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Yes. We are going to go now to Representative Dana Rohrbacher, who is in Irvine, California. He is on the Subcommittee for NASA.

Representative Rohrbacher, we appreciate you joining us at this difficult time. Your thoughts? REP. DANA ROHRBACHER (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, thank you very much. I know that today many Americans were shocked and surprised and are saddened, certainly. But, you know, the astronauts, they have always understood that this is a -- space flight is a tremendous risk. And I think many Americans fully didn't appreciate that risk. And they -- you know, NASA has done such a great job, and the astronauts do a great job, our aerospace industry does a great job. And they made it look like there was less risk than there is.

And now we know that this is not to be taken for granted. But I know that the astronauts and the other people who've lost their lives before and have risked their lives before would want us to pause for a moment and reflect upon it and correct any problems that there are. But they'd want us to make sure that we are continuing to move forward.

America, along with the other good people of the world, we're going to lead the whole human race into space, and -- because there's so many good things that we can accomplish there.

COOPER: As we go forward, as the days become weeks and the weeks and become months, and we move on to the investigation phase, what do you want to see? What has to come out of an investigation?

ROHRBACHER: Well, there's a number of things that we have to consider. And first and foremost, anyone who made a bad decision, yes, they should be held accountable, even if they didn't intentionally do something wrong. If it's a bad decision, they have to be held accountable. If there was a technological flaw, we have to come to grips with that.

So I think the best way to do that, however, would be through an independent panel of people, perhaps led by someone like John Glenn, who has the technical expertise plus the prestige and the time to focus totally on this issue.

But the most important thing to come out of it isn't, perhaps, that, you know, the fault or who made a mistake, and -- because we're going to correct the mistakes, and we're going to hold people accountable.

But we've got to know that space policy has got to come off of the back burner. Space policy has been something that -- well, for the last 10 years, has been something that hasn't been given the attention it deserves, considering the fact that there's so much potential of what can be done.

And right now, we're reliant on an ancient fleet, a fleet of shuttles that -- and Columbia was the oldest one of them -- that were designed 35 and 40 years ago. And that's not fair to our astronauts, and it's something that if we have the right kind of attention, we could actually propel humankind into space and do great things there for all of us.

COOPER: So in a sense, rather than slowing down the space program, you would hope that, if anything, this event focuses greater attention on it and propels the space program into the next century.

ROHRBACHER: Well, we are right now in the last century in terms of America's space program. As I say, the shuttle technology is something that was new back in the late '60s and early '70s. So -- but from -- especially in the last 10 years, the leaders have had other things that concern them.

To be fair to President Bush, since 9/11 we had a very serious national security challenge that has taken up his time and effort. But we should now as a people decide that we are going to commit ourselves to utilizing space, and we -- to do that, we've got to develop the technologies that will permit us new transportation systems.

For example, the space shuttle engine is exactly the same kind of engine that they had 35 years ago when the shuttle was first designed. We should develop new propulsion systems, we should be bringing down the cost of getting into space, and then committing ourselves to using space for the benefit of all humankind.

COOPER: Representative Rohrbacher, we appreciate you joining us this evening, and a very difficult day for all of us. Appreciate your thoughts at this time. Thanks very much.

Want to just remind our viewers that in just a few moments, at 8:00, we have a special edition, Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff, Miles O'Brien, a lot of CNN people here, they've been working all day on this, hope you join us for that. That starts in about four minutes from now.

Also want to show you a little bit about how the seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia woke up today, what they heard on this, the last day of their lives.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Good morning to the Red Team. That was "Scotland the Brave" for Laurel.

CLARK: Well, good morning, Houston. We're getting ready for a big day up here, had a great time on orbit, and really excited to come back home. Hearing that song reminds me of all the different places down on earth and all the friends and family that I have all over the world. Thanks, and it's been great working with you and all the other folks.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COOPER: The voice of Laurel Clark, age 41, one of the seven brave astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia who died today.

Reminded of what Ronald Reagan said in 1986 after the Challenger disaster. He said, "The future does not belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave." And brave these seven were.

I'm Anderson Cooper. That's it for me. Stay tuned in about one minute, a special report from CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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