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Special Edition: Columbia -- The Shuttle Tragedy

Aired February 2, 2003 - 12:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Welcome to a special LATE EDITION. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
NASA, the nation, and indeed the world are mourning the loss of seven Columbia astronauts. And the search now begins seriously for answers, answers to the questions, what happened, why this tragedy began, and why the tragedy claimed their lives?

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Daryn Kagan. I'm at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Columbia was supposed to land here. At 15 minutes before it was supposed to land, it exploded in midair. The question now from here and across the space program, where does the U.S. space program and NASA go from here?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Miles O'Brien, also at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA's best and brightest, the no-kidding rocket scientists are meeting as we speak, getting their first look at the data that came down from Columbia just before it disintegrated. Their focus, on that left wing, why did it fail? And could the crew have been doomed almost from the start?

BLITZER: CNN's Anderson Cooper is standing by with the latest developments in all of this. But before we go to Anderson Cooper, I want to go to David Mattingly. He's in Nacogdoches, Texas. That's where a lot of the debris has fallen from the skies over the past 24 hours plus, and that's where the investigation is focusing on what that debris might tell all of us as to the cause of the Columbia disaster -- David.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Wolf. There are search teams out in the field right now with global positioning devices. They're out there mapping the massive debris field that cuts a diagonal across this county. Many authorities here are finding they have a lot more debris in this county than they originally thought last night. They have identified 800 separate areas where debris has fallen here. Some of those locations might have a single piece of debris on it; others, however, might have hundreds of pieces of debris.

And it's so important right now that all these areas and pieces are accurately mapped by satellite, because NASA needs to know what pieces of the shuttle fell and where. The debris pattern, according to county sheriff here, can tell NASA a lot about how the shuttle came apart.

But there's one big problem that they're having to deal with right now, and that's manpower. They don't have enough people here to stand guard over all of the locations. So NASA has given them some guidance on what they consider most important.


SHERIFF THOMAS KERSS, MACOGDOCHES COUNTY, TEXAS: We realize we cannot muster enough manpower to possibly post someone at every debris location that's already been reported, let alone the additional sites that will continue to come in throughout the day. Therefore, we're going to begin an analysis of how important each site is in terms of us posting a representative there, and we will basically make an assessment on whether or not we will man that site.


MATTINGLY: There have been four reports of human remains found in this county. Those reports being turned over to the FBI for verification.

The FBI also looking into some possible cases of trophy hunting by people here in the county. Warnings continue to go out today to people that if you see something on the ground, don't pick it up, don't take it anywhere, don't even touch it because it could be illegal, first of all. Also, it could have some toxic material on it.

Some people not getting that message soon enough yesterday. Seventy people going to the hospital here in this county. All of those 70 people, however, fortunately, were not having any symptoms and were all sent home in good health.

Now, there's one problem they're having right now is the remote areas. I want to show you past the flags here that are at half-staff here, you can see the wooded area back there. This part of east Texas, there is a national forest, there is a lot of woods that they're having to deal with, and authorities are already conceding that it could be years from now that people are still walking through the woods and finding pieces of this shuttle -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the mood in Nacogdoches, David, among the people as they see this debris that's fallen on the ground there, what are people saying generally?

MATTINGLY: Here at the command center, the mood is a sense of determination. They know they have a tremendous job ahead of them. They know they don't have the manpower to do it properly right now, but they're doing the best they can, and they know it's a very important thing that they get out there and map this debris field as accurately as possible for NASA.

BLITZER: David Mattingly in Nacogdoches, Texas. David, thanks very much. Daryn Kagan standing by at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, that's where the shuttle was supposed to have landed. It obviously did not. What's happening there today, Daryn?

KAGAN: Well, a very different day than they planned here, Wolf. When we arrived early this morning, they said that would have been the time when the astronauts would have finished their celebration and heading toward where you are in Houston. Instead, things are early quiet here today at Kennedy Space Center.

Want to take the story from what David Mattingly was talking about: Where does all that debris go from here, and where does the investigation go?

The command center is going to be at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. And that's where we find our Mike Brooks standing by for that. Mike, hello.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Daryn, how are you? Well, here at Barksdale we are waiting ...

KAGAN: I'm doing fine. Go ahead.

BROOKS: Here at Barksdale, they are awaiting evidence. Once it's recovered, they will bring it here. One of the reasons they will use Barksdale Air Force base is because of the large hangar spaces here, because it is a B-52 bomber base, similar to the hangars you see in some of the vintage aircraft you see there on display here. Behind that, you will see some of the hangars that will be used once the evidence is recovered and brought here.

Now, as Daryn said, NASA's command post is here. NASA is the lead agency for the investigation and for the debris recovery. But as David said, there are other agencies involved. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is overseeing the recovery efforts out in the field. They are looking -- they are searching, finding, searching for and securing the evidence until the NASA can get there and assist them.

Now, I spoke with someone from NASA a little while ago. He said that they're used to dealing with systems of the shuttle, but that evidence is not their forte. He said, in fact, evidence recovery is kind of foreign to us. So that's why we're seeing the deployment of other agencies such as the FBI, ATF, NTSB to assist NASA in recovery efforts since they do it for a living -- Daryn.

KAGAN: A couple of questions for you, Mike. First of all, I'm kind of wondering how this is all going to work. I think of all these thousands and thousands of pieces coming to Barksdale and laying out in this hangar, as you describe. It just sounds like a giant jigsaw puzzle to me. Where do they go from there?

BROOKS: Well, it is kind of a giant jigsaw puzzle, Daryn. Once they get all the evidence and bring it here, they will sit down, engineers from NASA will sift through this. Metallurgists, specialists from NASA will go through looking for any piece that could have played a role in the tragedy of Columbia.

It's very similar to, for instance, the TWA 800 crash back in 1996. I was an investigator on that, was working in the hangar, trying to piece together some of the pieces as it was brought in from the debris fields off the coast of Long Island. They're going to be doing the same thing here for the shuttle Columbia.

Daryn, no hurry, they can sit down, take a look at every piece and find out if there is something, you know, kind of the oh-wow piece that may have contributed to this awful tragedy -- Daryn.

KAGAN: I know you also have experience with the situation when different agencies deal with each other. You already told us that NASA will be the lead agency, but you know when you get different groups together there can be power struggles and everyone doesn't always play nicely.

BROOKS: Well, not all the time, but right now Tom Ridge, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, has put FEMA in charge of the recovery of the evidence right now, of the debris, so I think that they're working together a lot better than they used to, and I think that Tom Ridge and his folks at the office of homeland -- the Department of Homeland Security will make sure that that happens. They have that mandate and they will carry that out -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, let's certainly hope so. A lot of people are going to want a lot of answers about what happened yesterday. Mike Brooks at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana. Mike, thank you very much.

We toss it back now to Houston and Miles.

O'BRIEN: Thanks very much, Daryn.

While you were talking, the folks at NASA came in and told us there's a three and a half-hour delay in that briefing we've been telling you about. It now will be at 4:30 p.m. eastern time, a briefing from some of the key members of the shuttle management team to give us a sense of where they stand right now after a solid overnight pouring over of data that that was captured immediately following the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

O'BRIEN: We will, of course, bring that briefing to you live whenever it happens, as it stands right now 4:30 p.m. eastern time.

Yesterday, when the space shuttle disintegrated at a little after 9 o'clock eastern time, the president was at Camp David. He made his way to the White House fairly quickly and addressed the nation with some rather touching words, an attempt to provide some solace at a very dark time.

Now, as we look ahead, we look toward the possibility of some memorial services later this week, one here, perhaps one, perhaps, in Washington. CNN's Suzanne Malveaux is at the White House with more on all of that.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. President Bush and the first lady attended church services this morning, the White House emphasizing this is a time for mourning, reflection, as well as prayer. The flag here at the White House at half-staff, as so many places around the world.

Also, we are told, the president has been receiving condolences from leaders across the globe.

Now, as you know, President Bush, when he addressed the nation vowing that despite the grounding of the shuttle that the space program would continue. There is already a heated debate that is taking place, both for people who are in and outside of NASA. Some complaints about budget cuts, as well as lack of funding. Some claiming that it has compromised the safety of the space shuttle program.

Well, as you know, tomorrow President Bush is going to be introducing the 2004 budget. We are told for NASA, 2003 was $15.1 billion. Sources tell us do not expect much more than that. It's pretty much going to be the same, but as we know, your guest, the director of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, to answer many of those questions coming up.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House. Suzanne, thanks very much for that report.

Sean O'Keefe is the NASA administrator. He's joining us now live from Washington.

Mr. O'Keefe, thanks very much for joining us.

Is the investigation focusing primarily on those tiles that may have been damaged -- and that's a big "may" -- may have been damaged on liftoff?

SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: Well, there's no question, the investigation and all the evidence we're collecting is in pursuit of that theory and every other possible theory that could be out there.

And we're going to collect the evidence, let the evidence speak for it, let the facts speak for themselves. And as we come to a conclusion on what the cause of this accident was, we're not ruling anything out at this juncture.

So I think Daryn's commentary is exactly right. Secretary Ridge has been fantastic at making sure that all the state and local law enforcement officials, the FEMA, emergency services folks, everybody is securing the evidence. And we're going to pore over that and make sure that no -- any theory is not ruled out.

We're starting with the opportunity to look at every single possibility of what could have gone wrong.

BLITZER: And just to button this up, because I know there are going to be lingering questions no matter what you say, the notion of foul play or terrorism, has that now been ruled out?

O'KEEFE: Well, again, what I said yesterday still applies today, which is, it does not appear as though there was any prospect this could have been something perpetrated from the ground. I mean, again, the loss of communication occurred shortly around 9:00 a.m. eastern time at about 207,000 feet as the orbiter was traveling at Mach 18. So the likelihood of anything that could have been perpetuated from the ground is extremely low, if not non- existent.

So we're not ruling anything out, though. We're looking through this. And as a matter of fact, by having Hal Gehman, Admiral Gehman, who was the on the Cole investigation, he is leading this particular independent investigation board for us. And so even that possibility is going to be examined.

But I think the probability is very low that it could have occurred from the ground at all. But again, we're leaving nothing to chance. Admiral Gehman's background and his chairmanship of this board will settle any and all possible circumstances of what caused this accident.

BLITZER: Mr. O'Keefe, as you well remember, after the Challenger disaster in 1986, then-President Reagan appointed a special presidential commission chaired by the then-former Secretary of State William Rogers to look into what happened. Do you think that would be appropriate, that kind of presidential commission, this time?

O'KEEFE: Well, at this juncture, we've got, you know, the internal investigation that's under way. And, again, I think, as you all have covered very, very thoroughly -- and I appreciate that -- all the effort going on to coordinate among all the federal agencies is working as seamlessly as we know how to do it.

Having an independent objective board led by someone of the stature and standing of a four-star retired admiral, Admiral Hal Gehman, to conduct this with members who are external NASA experts looking at safety mission assurance and flight certification is our goal. That's part of our plan. That's what's been announced.

Our deputy administrator, Fred Gregory, is travelling with them right now down to Shreveport, Louisiana, to assure that Admiral Gehman and his investigative board has all the support they need in order to come to conclusion on what caused this horrific accident.

BLITZER: The next space shuttle had been scheduled for March 1. Obviously, that's not going to happen. Do you have any idea how long a hold on new space shuttle takeoffs will continue?

O'KEEFE: Sure, as we do in every situation, any time there is any compromise of safety of flight, we always suspend operations. That's certainly true in this case.

And as soon as we get a determination from Admiral Gehman's investigative board on what may have caused this accident -- we're not putting a timeline on that -- we're going to let the facts speak and let the evidence speak for what caused this -- we will then make a determination of what we need to do to correct it and only fly safely to resume safety-of-flight operations. Meanwhile, we've got folks aboard the International Space Station, three astronauts and cosmonauts -- Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Nicolai Budarin -- who are depending upon us to make sure that we run this to ground diligently, we support them in every way possible, and get back to flying as soon as we can in order to assure that they are brought back home and a replacement crew is send up to relieve them. And that's exactly what we're committed to doing.

BLITZER: Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator. Mr. O'Keefe, thanks so much for joining us. Our deepest condolences to you as well and to the entire NASA community.

You're looking at live pictures from Nacogdoches, Texas. They're having a news conference, the local law enforcement, on the debris that's been found throughout that area.

KERSS: We're using a priority basis on any site that has a report of possible remains. Obviously, we're going to take as a top priority any site that has a report of anything that may be volatile or harmful in nature, you know, radioactive, chemical-oriented is a top priority.

Beyond that, any site that appears that it may have some type of data circuitry or something where data can be retrieved from it is also considered a top priority.

Then, we're operating on the theory of large accumulated pieces, but some of our process is also governed by where each piece of debris is located. If the debris is in a very remote location and it's unlikely that it's going to be encountered by a significant number of citizens, we may not man that site over a site that's in a more populated area and possibly has public exposure.


KERSS: No, we had hoped to receive information by now on a possible plan when NASA may begin a recovery effort on the debris. Unfortunately, that information has not been delivered to us yet. We do anticipate a crew from the federal government, including a NASA representative, to meet with us shortly, and we should hopefully learn more about that by the next briefing point.


KERSS: Well, again, and I can't reiterate enough that we have a mass amount of forest and timberland within our county. Some of this area may not receive coverage for weeks or months. But we will begin to try to search the areas based on the path that has been charted, and we're going to try to use helicopters that have been volunteered to assist us with a flyover to see if we can't more specifically pinpoint those debris fields or the areas that we think debris fields may exist in before we put our mounted units out there.


KERSS: The largest piece so far that we have received a report of is approximately seven to eight feet in length.


KERSS: We are over 1,000 sites still on reporting and I'm not trying to keep a running number on a 1,002 versus 1,015, but in general terms as we increase from that, we'll probably give those to you in increments of 100 or so.


KERSS: Obviously a number of those sites, and, chief, I'll let you, if you want to address that more specifically, talk about what sites are inside the city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course, probably half those sites were reported within the city, and I think the reason for that is obviously population density. We had more people out there that are finding these items and...

QUESTION: I can't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, I'm sorry. Let me start over again. I think the reason we found so many sites in the city obviously is because of the population density. We have more people reporting these sites and we're getting -- of course, we're getting this information to the command post so that they can be looked at later on by the federal government.

So -- but -- the calls are coming in constantly. Communications are like the sheriff said, have been overwhelmed for the past couple of days and they're doing a terrific job.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We -- the last official -- what I got last night was about 528, and that's in this -- we had sightings all through the night. Of course, it slowed down considerably but it never stopped. Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Some debris has been picked up. (OFF-MIKE). Where has that debris gone?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the only item that was of significance was a fuel cell that landed at the airport, and it was moved into a hangar and it has been since tested by the United States Army.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, a tremendous amount of pieces, yes.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's correct.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, that hasn't been moved. It's still on site. We haven't moved anything.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right. No, they're still being guarded as far as I'm concerned.


KERSS: There have been a few undisclosed site locations where federal authorities were sent to those sites, and based on the description of the components that were at those sites, they did go ahead and make a decision to retrieve that after it was cataloged. At this time, we're not in a position to be able to tell you where that was taken to. But it has been recovered for NASA.


KERSS: Primarily that's going to deal with data circuitry information, other than, of course, remains.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do we have any other questions?

QUESTION: Sure. Based on that map and what you found and where people are, and what you know about the wide area (UNINTELLIGIBLE), how much is out there? I mean, obviously the shuttle didn't just fall on the roadside.

KERSS: Well, fortunately the citizens of Nacogdoches County elected me as sheriff because of my law enforcement skills, not my mathematical or physics research abilities. I will estimate that there is a number of pieces out there yet to be determined. Probably just based on the number that we're seeing, it won't surprise me if that number doubles, maybe even more than that. I don't know that we'll ever find all these pieces, but to really give you a more educated guess than that, that's beyond what I'm prepared to do.


KERSS: The basic search field has not really increased. As you could see from the map, our pattern still runs in a more or less east to westerly direction across our county. What you will see happen as this search continues is we will broaden that path in a north to south type direction with our search efforts. But, you know, we can't extend the borders of our county east to west anymore, and we are literally spread from one county line to the other in that direction.


KERSS: I would say that we're probably dealing with about a 12- to 15-mile-wide radius there.


KERSS: No, again, I'm sure the federal agency is still trying to get their plan in place, and hopefully -- we hope to have that this morning. We did not get it. Hopefully by this afternoon we'll receive, you know, further guidance on that.

JUDGE SUE KENNEDY, MACOGDOCHES, TEXAS: There is a wonderful World War II movie called "The Longest Day." And what they were told in that was hold until relieved. Hold until relieved. And that's what we intend to do, and we are trying to use our resources as widely as we can to accomplish that.

We have been told that hopefully we will have some information through FEMA around noon, so we have called another command meeting at noon. Therefore, we will have another press conference at 1:00, and hopefully by 1:00 we can give you some more definitive information. We are also trying to feed off of your questions. As you ask us for information, we're trying to gather that and give that back to you, and we appreciate that very much to try to get the information that you feel like your listeners need to have, or that you need to have to do your job.

We thank you for your help. It is amazing to me how much you truly understand about this kind of incident and recognize that we are trying to coordinate multi agencies, multi-talented people, and do that in a very efficient way and continue to give you information, and we will proceed to do that throughout the day.

One last one. There's always one last one.


KENNEDY: Yes, sir.


KENNEDY: Well, my general impression is I think that we have such a coordinated effort between the county and the city that we are gathering information faster than what's happening in our more rural counties that don't have the same resources.


KENNEDY: Yes. Yes, sir.


KENNEDY: Again, sir, I'm having a hard time answering your question, because we're just operating on known information and we're not sure if the other counties are gathering information as quickly as we are. So it does have the appearance, because we've got good communication and support going on here.

KERSS: Let me also address that. Of the rural counties that surround us, Nacogdoches County is one of the more populated counties. Some of the counties to the east and south of us don't have quite the population that we do and they are more remote.

So even though we -- it appears that we have received the bulk of the debris, if you will, that's not to say that that's going to turn out to hold true when this is all said and done. It may just be that due to the number of citizens we have out moving we're finding more of this debris right now and we're receiving more reports of it.


KERSS: I can't speak for NASA in terms of how they're treating us. I think they're trying to address every county's needs as best they can. I certainly think NASA realizes that there is a significant amount of debris on the ground here in Nacogdoches County.

Thank you.


KERSS: I have a sworn force -- and that's almost a deceptive question in itself. I have a sworn force of 16 patrol deputies, five transport officers. I have 30 reserve officers and I have about 50 jail employees. In addition to that, I have another 18 officers assigned to a narcotics task force, and that's my direct resources.


KERSS: Well, obviously we have tried to make an effort to relieve all of our personnel for some period of time. I have personnel much like myself that are going on two or three hours of rest, but for the most part we've tried to streamline the patrol efforts and the search efforts on 12-hour shifts right now. Our dispatchers, we're trying to rotate them out on eight-hour shifts. Those numbers I gave you didn't include the civilian support personnel such at dispatch, but we're trying to rotate them out on at least eight-hour shifts, because of the burnout factor that they stand to have, and then we'll have all the additional assistance that's been offered from every fine agency that's come to help us.

BLITZER: Sheriff Thomas Kerss of Nacogdoches County in Texas talking about the recovery effort. He says some 523 pieces of debris have already been recovered. They're determining what to do with that. We'll continue to monitor what he says. He'll be back in an hour or two with more information.

We are continuing our special coverage, Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy. When we come back, we'll speak with Senator Bill Nelson, himself a former astronaut, but before we go to that, let's check all the latest developments. CNN's Anderson Cooper is standing by for that at the CNN Center in Atlanta.



O'BRIEN: Live picture of the cavernous vehicle assembly building at the Kennedy Space Center. I'm Miles O'Brien, live at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Before yesterday's tragedy of Columbia, NASA, some 17 years after the space shuttle Challenger explosion, was getting ready to open the door once again to allowing civilians to fly in space. An educator mission specialist program was just recently announced. The understudy to Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died on Challenger, was set to fly at the end of this year. All that now, hard to predict where that will lead and whether that educator mission specialist program will ever come to fruition, at least for the foreseeable future.

O'BRIEN: Someone who knows a lot about bringing civilians into space and bringing others besides professional astronauts up there is Senator Bill Nelson, who himself flew on the space shuttle just prior to the Challenger accident. At that time, he was Congressman Bill Nelson in addition to being astronaut Bill Nelson.

Senator Nelson, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: I'm curious, if you knew what you know now about Challenger and about Columbia most recently, would you have flown?

NELSON: Yes, I would. And that question was put to me 17 years ago, right after we had returned to Earth and 10 days later Challenger launched and blew up, and I said, at the time, yes.

And any crew member, I think -- we're prepared to take that risk. You never want to have to face the consequences of what this nation did yesterday nor what it did 17 years ago.

O'BRIEN: Senator Nelson, Congress holds the purse-strings for NASA. Congress, in many ways, is NASA's boss. And inevitably, there will be a discussion out of this about how much NASA should be funded, should there be another orbiter built, and in fact, has it been so poorly funded in recent years that maybe, just maybe it wasn't as safe as it should be?

What are your thoughts?

NELSON: Well, clearly, the administration has been delaying the safety upgrades on the space shuttle. That is inexcusable. Although that delay and those upgrades, I don't think, has any connection with yesterday's tragedy. Ironically, out of this tragedy we will now probably see the safety upgrades sped up.

But we're going to have a robust space program, and it's going to require an increase in NASA's budget that has not been given for the last 12 years. The spending today is almost the same in real dollars as it was 12 years ago.

O'BRIEN: And as a fraction of the federal budget, just a small fraction of a percentage point, and yet is remains one of those things that is the ultimate in discretionary spending. And thus it's a difficult political battle for supporters of the space program when they go to Congress, particularly when the committee that looks after their budget also is also in charge of veterans.

And if the choice becomes between space and veterans, it's -- politically, that's a no-brainer.

NELSON: And a whole host of other needs, such as the environment, is in that same subcommittee.

But regardless of that, the space program is the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of almost all Americans, the fact that we are adventurers and explorers by nature. We never want to give that up, Miles, or else we're going to be a second-rate country. And that's why we'll continue to have a robust space program.

O'BRIEN: But what kinds of dollars are we talking about? The space shuttle program, in and of itself, is about a $3 billion-a-year operation. They've been complaining for years that they want to make some significant upgrades for it to fly. It's been flying many more years than it was anticipated. And those long-range upgrades have not been performed.

We're talking about some real money here if you're going to start looking at that fleet and upgrading it to fly for a significant period of time into the future, like the B-52 is still flying.

NELSON: Well, I've suggested, Miles, that we've got to give NASA some relief. And if the White House will not increase NASA's budget, then some of the items, such as the technologies developing for a future space plane, could be borne by an agency that is flush with cash, such as the Defense Department, still having NASA do the overall program management.

O'BRIEN: But, Senator, as you well know, that concerns an awful lot of people when you talk about putting the space program under the aegis of the Pentagon. A lot would like to see a firewall between the civilian space agency and the military space efforts.

NELSON: That's why the development of the technology should be under NASA. And I think that, to his credit, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, I think he's moving in that direction, and I commend him for it.

And that's the only way we're going to free up money so that you can put it into the shuttle safety upgrades.

O'BRIEN: All right. Very quickly, Senator, any doubt that the U.S. will be flying shuttles maybe not soon, but in the foreseeable future?

NELSON: Lord, I hope we're not down for 2 1/2 years, like we were after the Challenger tragedy. We need to get back up and flying. And if NASA can find it, fix the problem, we can be up and flying and using that magnificent platform, the space station, for the science that we need.

O'BRIEN: Hopefully we won't have to abandon that space station. I guess that is a distinct...

NELSON: No, I hope not.

O'BRIEN: All right. Senator Bill Nelson, Republican of Florida, thank you very much for being with us. Senator Bill Nelson.

NELSON: Thanks, Miles. Democrat of Florida.

O'BRIEN: My apologies. I knew that. And thank you for correcting me on that. It's been a long day.

NELSON: Thanks, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. My apologies.

We're going to take a break. When we return, we're going to check in with Elizabeth Cohen, who, I know for a fact, is in Amarillo, Texas. Rick Husband, the commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia is, was, the pride of Amarillo. We'll check in with her in just a bit.


KAGAN: I'm Daryn Kagan, live at the Kennedy Space Center.

I want to share with you something that the Orlando Sentinel put out. It is a special eight-page edition with coverage of what took place. And when you look inside, you see these large pictures of all seven of the astronauts and their stories.

And looking over their stories, I think it strikes me, one reason this hit so many of us in the gut, when you read about these people, these were seven people who had -- not only had incredible dreams, but literally reached for the stars to make those dreams come true.

No one typifies that more than the commander of this mission, and that was Rick Husband. He tried to be an astronaut not once, four times, before he was finally accepted to the program, to make the dream of becoming an astronaut come true.

Want to take you now to Rick Husband's hometown, and that is Amarillo, Texas, and that's where we find our Elizabeth Cohen -- Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, I'm here at the Poke Street (ph) United Methodist Church in Amarillo. This is the church where Rick Husband grew up. He was a hero in this town, and certainly a hero in this church. He was in the choir as a little boy, and the parishioners remember how he used to wave down from the choir to his parents.

They remember a very happy boy and they remember a boy who had a goal at age 4. He said, I want to be an astronaut, and he did everything that he could to make that happen.

Now, I have here with me Ellen Robertson Neal. Ellen is a television producer who did a documentary about Rick Husband for (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the local PBS station, and you became friends with Rick, as well, over the years. Tell me, how did you hear about the tragedy yesterday?

ELLEN ROBERTSON NEAL, FRIEND OF RICK HUSBAND: I was out walking with my neighbor, and her husband came to get us. And we hadn't walked very far, but it certainly was a long ride home. You could not know Rick and not realize what a treasure we've lost.

COHEN: And tell me, what do you remember about him in particular?

NEAL: I remember how he welcomed us into his home. How he was not -- he was not arrogant at all. He was certainly the commander of the shuttle, but you would think he was your child's Little League soccer coach when you were in his home. I've done a thousand stories, and no family has ever welcomed me into their home and loved me like the Husbands have.

COHEN: And you got to know Evelyn as well and you talked to her about some of her excitement and anxiety about these shuttles?

NEAL: I think any shuttle family is, of course, excited for their family member, but also very weary of the liftoff and the landing, and they knew the dangers, but they knew how much Rick wanted to fly and they were willing to love him through that.

COHEN: And can you tell me in your documentary you said to Rick, what's the message of your life? What was his answer?

NEAL: I did. I said, what would you like to leave us with? And he said he wants people to know that he is very thankful that he became an astronaut, but if you achieve your goals without having a relationship with your family and your God along the way, then it means nothing.

COHEN: OK. Thank you. Ellen Robertson Neal, who did a documentary and was a close friend, Daryn, again here at the home town church. Back to you, Daryn.

KAGAN: Elizabeth Cohen, thank you so much. A lot of tears, a lot of pride there as well in their home town hero in Rick Husband, Texan through and through, also a little bit of a Californian in him. He got his masters degree in mechanical engineering at Fresno State. Carried a Bulldog sweatshirt with him up on board the shuttle to take a picture to show the folks down in Fresno. He was proud of his ties there as well.

We have a lot more ahead, including we'll have a chance to talk with the man who was the commander of the first joint space mission between the U.S. and Russia. He is just ahead. Also, more news headlines.

Stay with us. We'll be back after this.



JERRY LINENGER, ASTRONAUT: I think every astronaut feels the same way, though, you know. There's a lot of people that have gone before us, and the people have the courage to do the things that they did, they know the danger. And we're all proud of them.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our continuing coverage, "Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy." I'm Wolf Blitzer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The news conference from the NASA officials has been delayed until 4:30 p.m. Eastern, 3:30 p.m. Central time. CNN, of course, will have live coverage when the NASA officials come out and answer our questions.

But joining us now, retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General Charles Bolden. He's a former astronaut, former assistant deputy director of NASA.

General, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: When you first heard or saw on TV what was going on more than 24 hours ago, what immediately went through your mind?

BOLDEN: I was kind of numb. I was actually out riding my motorcycle across the Texas countryside. And it was sort of deja vu with the Challenger accident in that, you know, they reported that the shuttle was overdue. And in spite of what I know, I kept hoping that, well, maybe something had caused them to go into a holding pattern or something and...

BLITZER: But you wouldn't lose communication?

BOLDEN: You wouldn't lose -- you wouldn't do anything. I was just hoping against...

BLITZER: So immediately you feared the worst?

BOLDEN: I knew the worst, yes.

BLITZER: Did you think it had anything to do with that left wing and the tile?

BOLDEN: No, I did not, because, believe it or not, at the time, I really had put the left wing out of my mind. I had no idea that it would have anything to do with the vehicle breaking up.

I actually thought that, because I wasn't at home, I was listening on NPR, and I actually thought that the shuttle was on its final approach and perhaps had not been talked to or something like that.

But I had no idea that it was...

BLITZER: And obviously the investigation is just beginning. Could be any one of thousands of causes. They'll be looking at it.

What are they going to specifically do as they collect all this debris that we've been seeing?

BOLDEN: It'll be just like any aircraft accident. They'll try to get as much as they can. They'll try to assemble it in some place, probably a hangar there at Shreveport.

BLITZER: At Barksdale Air Force Base.

BOLDEN: At Barksdale. And then they'll try to reconstruct the shuttle to the best they can using the technology that's available now. They'll go over it with a fine-tooth comb and find every area that looks unusual -- burning, breakage, that kind of thing -- to try to help determine what the primary cause was.

BLITZER: You know, for years, critics have said this whole space shuttle program is not safe, it's dangerous, and that something else should take its place. It's technology from the '60s and '70s, and it's endangering in people's lives.

BOLDEN: I have heard that over and over and over again, but it's like anything that we do that's exploration. Exploration is risky business. Going into space is risky business. I think shuttle is actually safer than many of the other things we do.

But what we have to do is demonstrate that there is some return on this investment for the American public in order to get their faith again in the program.

BLITZER: It took 2 1/2 years after the Challenger exploded to get back on track.

BOLDEN: It did. It did. And most of that time was political time. You know, we knew what had happened. I think you know very well, we knew what had happened the next day. But we wanted to make sure that we weren't jumping to a conclusion and that there was not a secondary cause. So that's what actually took us the 2 1/2 years.

This time, I think we'll find out in relatively quick order what caused the accident. But it will still take us some time to comb through the evidence and make sure that we're not missing anything.

BLITZER: Because if, in fact, the space shuttle is endangered as a program, the whole International Space Station is effectively endangered as a program, is effectively over as a program.

BOLDEN: I won't go that far. I mean, there is still a way to -- I think there's always a way to salvage something that is worthwhile. I think the International Space Station is extremely vital to the future of space exploration. So I think we will find a way to be successful.

I think we'll find what happened with shuttle and we'll be back flying again in relatively short order. Now, what's to be determined is, what is relatively short order? I don't think it will take us 3 1/2 years.

BLITZER: Two and a half years. BOLDEN: I don't think it'll take us 2 1/2 years. I think in a matter of months we will be comfortable that we know what happened.

Now, the thing that I always caution people on is, you know, when we go through everything, we may -- if it is, in fact, the debris that came off the external tank, some people would say, OK, that's an act of God.

We know how to fix that. We can fix it, we've had two flights now in a row where we lost SOFI, spray-on foam insulation, off the external tank. We'll figure out why. Was there a process change or something? We can fix that.

And then we've got to have confidence in our technical ability to say we've solved that problem and go fly again. We say, you know, "That was a fluke that day because of something else, and let's go fly."

BLITZER: General Bolden, thanks for joining us.

BOLDEN: Oh, thank you very much.

BLITZER: And our condolences to the entire NASA family. I know you're still very close. You live here in the area. Appreciate it very much.

BOLDEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: We have much more coverage. Our special coverage will continue. We'll go back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Gary Tuchman is standing by. He's got some visitors there. We're going to get their reaction to what's happened. Stay with us.


KAGAN: We're taking a look there at the launch pad where shuttle Columbia took off about -- on January 16. Certainly the investigation into what went wrong with the descent will take a look at what happened as it took off. Did something fly into the left wing to damage the shuttle that ended up turning it into a day of doom yesterday?

This is my first visit to the Kennedy Space Center, and I think you have to come here to realize just how huge this facility is. If we can take that other shot where you can see the launch pad -- that's just one of two launch pads, they alternate for shuttle launches -- that's it up close. And then if you come back to me and look over my left shoulder, that's that same launch pad. That's about two or three miles away from where we stand here.

This is just one part of the Kennedy Space Center. A whole other part, about five or six miles away from me, is Gary Tuchman at the visitors center, where people come from all over the world to learn more about the space shuttle and just the space program in general. Gary, hello. GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hello to you, Daryn. That's right. Hundreds of tourists came here yesterday to watch the landing of the space shuttle Columbia. Now, many of those people and hundreds of others have come here to mourn the loss of the seven astronauts aboard the Columbia.

Behind me, this black wall is the astronaut memorial wall that was built in 1991. Every name of every U.S. astronaut who has died in duty of his or her country is up there. And right here is a book, a remembrance book that people are signing right now to give what they want to say to the families of those who lost their loved ones aboard the Columbia.

We want to give you a look at how long this line is. There are right now about 75 people waiting in line in the hot, and I do say hot February Florida sun, waiting to get a chance to sign the book.

We want to talk with someone right here. Can I ask you, sir, where you're from?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm from Tampa, Florida.

TUCHMAN: You're from Tampa, Florida -- oh, Sanford, Florida, which is near Orlando. Tell me what made you decide to come here today?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To pay my respects.

TUCHMAN: You have a flower you're going to leave here. What are going to you say in the book when you sign it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My respects, my respects to the astronauts. Basically, that's it.

TUCHMAN: Makes you sad?


TUCHMAN: Want to thank you for talking with us, sir.

We do want to tell you that normally when you come to this area here in the tourist area at the Kennedy Space Center, you have to pay a fee. That fee has been waived for today, and for the indefinite time being.

Daryn, back to you.

KAGAN: Gary Tuchman with us here at the Kennedy Space Center. Gary, thank you very much. We're going to have much more from here in Florida, also in Houston and all across the U.S., and also Israel and India. Stay with us. We'll be back after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back to this special LATE EDITION. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. We have much more coverage of Columbia, the shuttle tragedy unfolding.

But first let's check all the latest developments in this tragedy. CNN's Anderson Cooper is standing by at the CNN Center in Atlanta with the latest headlines.


O'BRIEN: In the history of aviation and space travel, there has never been an in-flight breakup like this one. Traveling at an altitude of more than 200,000 feet at Mach 18, 12,500 miles an hour, much faster than a speeding bullet, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded.

What it left was a debris field that extends for hundreds of miles, thousands of pieces, the largest of which that we know of right now is about seven feet in length. And we are saddened to report that there are some people who, despite the warnings, have been picking up some of these pieces. And we should tell you that's not a good idea.

A shuttle is a toxic brew of volatile chemicals, and you can be burned and suffer other serious health consequences. And what's more, those pieces are very important to investigators, as they try to determine what happened to the Space Shuttle Columbia.

CNN's Maria Hinojosa is in the midst of that debris field in Hemphill, Texas -- Maria.

MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Miles. Well, the search today has taken on a very different kind of feel. Yesterday they really were depending on the phone calls that were coming into this area of Hemphill. Over 500 phone calls that they've received. Today, they have got between 100 and 300 people who are out combing a 250- square mile radius, all coming out of this command standing.

What they are doing is they are literally going through, separating -- one long line. Men separated between 15 to 20 feet, literally combing through the very deep forest of this Sabine National Forest, and they are trying to find all of those pieces of the wreckage that of course were not visible, that did not land in people's yards or in their farms.

But this is going to take quite a bit of time to do that. It's very difficult work, very particular work. Very painstaking work. We have also seen many men who are out on their dune buggies, going up and down through the highways trying to see if they spot anything there.

We also know that there have been human remains that have been found in this area of Hemphill. In fact, part of the area that they have decided to look through is separated by basically a triangle between Route 96 south and Route 83, where two human remains were found, and in that area is what they are using, essentially, as their triangle to search northwest into this part of Texas through the forest.

Now, the human remains that were found here were, in fact, taken to Lubbock, Texas by (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They were taken there because that is the closest area where they have a forensic medical examiner. They were taken there by escort, by the sheriffs. And as of right now, we are expecting a news conference any moment. We have not heard anything yet about any other recovery of human remains now.

What we do know is that they have, in fact, brought in divers that are going to be going into the Toledo Bend (ph) reservoir. It is a pretty large reservoir area. They have apparently found size debris -- the size of a small compact car. The divers are going to be going underwater. They will be putting a GPS on this to mark it. They will not be -- as far as we know today -- removing that. They'll be leaving it there, searching for more underwater, and then the EPA will be doing the final removals.

Now, what we can tell you, we were just at a spot up the road here that actually has several pieces of debris, Miles. But last night, after the police had come and marked off this area, where we had seen a large round piece, about this big, between 9:30 and 10:30 last night, after it was cordoned off with police tape, someone came in and stole that piece of the debris. We have heard lots of people talking, of course, not to touch the debris, but I can tell you that I have seen people touching the debris.

Much of it is small, it's scattered, it looks pretty non- threatening and people are thinking, well, why can't I touch it and move it from one place to another? We also know that there are eight people here in Hemphill who are in the hospital as of this morning that were being treated because of inhalation problems or burn problems. We've heard of other hospitals around the area treating several people that are complaining of the same thing.

But, again, we have seen people that are actually touching this stuff. We have heard of cases where people are not wanting to even call the authorities to let them know. They kind of feel that this has landed in their property and it's theirs. So the message continues to go out that this is, of course, federal property. It is a felony. But I have seen people, in fact, saying that they didn't plan on calling in to say that they have this material -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Maria Hinojosa, thanks very much, Maria, for that report.

One of the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, of course, was an Israeli colonel, Israeli Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon, the pride of Israel. A nation now in shock, grieving.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel looks at the reaction to what happened just more than 24 hours ago.


JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon headed for Columbia's blastoff, he was a rare symbol of hope and pride for Israelis, battered and buffeted by more than two years of deadly conflict. Now in the tails of smoke over Texas, those hopes have vanished. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had a little bit of a moment of pride and a moment of light. And it seems to be taken away from us.

KESSEL: "Remnants of a Dream," this banner headline. Weeping for Ilan, the message here, as students from the very youngest talked about the tragedy, seeking like all Israelis to come to grips with the pain that has replaced the innocent hope.

Because he was the representative of the country in this issue, it was very -- it was more hurting than anyone that they were killing in car bomb, or something like that.

KESSEL: From space, Ilan Ramon spoke of the vulnerability of the planet, of the smallness of his own country, feelings resonating all the more with his fellow Israelis now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We felt that this hope would bring us a little bit smiles to the face because this is very difficult for us in Israel. We hope that this project will continue with (ph) an Israeli astronaut.

KESSEL: Ariel Sharon sent condolences to the people of the United States. The prime minister called Ramon "a bold pilot, who did not," he said, "deserved to be taken from us, along with our hopes and dreams."

But with U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtz at his side, Sharon insisted the tragedy should not mean the end of the brave endeavor.

ARIEL SHARON, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL (through translator): Their deaths are not in vain. Man's journey into space will continue. Cooperation between the United States and Israel in this field will continue. The day will come when we will launch more Israeli astronauts into space.

KESSEL: Flags are at half-staff, as Israel mourns together with its best friend, the United States.

(on camera): For a while, Ilan Ramon's space journey diverted some of Israel's detention from their searing conflict with the Palestinians, from their domestic political turmoil. Now, in a troubled region, even as they mourn, those issues return to be confronted with greater intensity.

Jerrold Kessel, CNN, Jerusalem.


BLITZER: And joining us now here at the Johnson Space Center in Houston is Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. Our condolences to you.

You've come here because Colonel Ramon leaves behind a wife and four young children. You're spending time with them. BLITZER: First of all, how are they doing?

DANIEL AYALON, ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Yes, we came here from Washington first and foremost to be with the family, to be with Rona, the wife, just to hug her, to hold her hands, to look at her eyes and be together. And we had a very painful and emotional meeting last night.

But she struck me also as very resilient, very proud and a very strong person. She was very proud of her husband of 14 years. She said how confident she is that he died so happy.

BLITZER: How old are the children, and how are they doing?

AYALON: There are four children. The oldest is 15. The youngest is five. Their second child is going to have his bar mitzvah in two months in February. And we have now families also from Israel who's coming to be with her here in Houston.

BLITZER: They have been living here as he trained for this mission over the past several years, but I assume they'll be going back to Israel now.

AYALON: Yes, correct, Wolf. They've been here for the last 2 1/2 years. They made many great friends here among the Houston community with NASA and, of course, they will have to think about their future and going back to Israel.

I think, first and foremost, they will stay here, and we will be here with them to find out about possible remains. It's very important for us to bring Ilan to a burial. And we are going to meet with NASA officials in an hour to get the status briefing.

BLITZER: So whatever remains they might find would be taken back to Israel for burial in Israel, is that right?

AYALON: Yes, yes.

And, Wolf, I would also like to say that we have great confidence in NASA. They have been dealing with us with the utmost sensitivity and professionalism, updating us. And of course, we will continue the cooperations with them for future endeavors as well.

BLITZER: Is there a sense, though, that there was a lapse in security -- not necessarily security, but in safety procedures that resulted in this tragedy?

AYALON: Not necessarily. We are now just grieving, you know, collecting up the pieces. And we're so grateful for the United States being our friend and ally of allowing us to have this participation. We will keep doing that. We are now have a bond, a blood, I would say, allegiance, and we will continue that.

You know, Wolf, there are few events in a nation's history that galvanize, that pull the people together. We had two of them, one very happy, two weeks ago, with the launch, and a very sad and tragic one with the return of Columbia.

But I think it also galvanized our two nations, Israel and the United States. We are grieving both. But we are also very proud of the excellence of the achievements. And no doubt we will continue to try and expand the envelope of knowledge for the betterment of humankind, both here and in Israel and for the entire international community.

BLITZER: From joy to sorrow, all within the span of only 16 days.

I know you have a tight schedule. One quick question, when I interviewed Sean O'Keefe, the administrator of NASA, I asked him if there was any indication whatsoever to suspect foul play, terrorism.

Has the Israeli government come up with anything along those lines at all? Has that totally been removed?

AYALON: Well, certainly, Wolf, you know, given this nature of the times with this global terrorism hitting everywhere, you know, it crosses one's mind when something like that happens. But we've pretty much ruled it out. The altitude and the speeds pretty much precludes any outside influence on the shuttle.

BLITZER: All right. Ambassador Ayalon, our condolences to you and to all the people of Israel.

AYALON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you very much for joining us.

AYALON: And the same to you and to the American people. Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Ambassador.

Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States. He's here in Houston at the Johnson Space Center, trying to bring some comfort to the family of Colonel Ilan Ramon, one of those seven astronauts.

When we come back, Brian Cabell will be joining us. He's up in Racine, Wisconsin. He's talking to the family of another astronaut who was killed in the Columbia Shuttle tragedy. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage, Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

This note: 4:30 p.m. eastern today, a few hours from now, there will be a briefing here at the Johnson Space Center, NASA officials coming in to answer our questions, news media questions, about the tragedy that occurred yesterday.

Let's check in now with CNN's Anderson Cooper at the CNN center in Atlanta for a quick check of all the other day's news.


KAGAN: This seems like such a -- it is indeed such a sad story to cover, because it is the ending of lives that came entirely too soon. And yet, when you look at each astronaut's lives and realize what they did and how they lived, you can't help but smile, because they lived life to the fullest.

Take Laurel Clark, for instance. She was one of the two female astronauts on board this flight. It was her first shuttle flight. When you look at her resume, just a couple of things: underseas medical officer, a diving medical officer, a submarine medical officer. She also was a trainer and hyperbaric chamber adviser.

So she was an astronaut, a doctor, a wife and a mother. It sounds like something that came out of a Danielle Steele novel. An incredible woman, an incredible life, even though it was a life that ended too soon at age 41.

Want to take you now to her hometown, and that is Racine, Wisconsin, and our Brian Cabell is standing by live there. Brian, hello.

BRIAN CABELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello. Laurel Clark was moved around a lot as a child, she and her family. But they finally settled in Racine, Wisconsin, and she's always considered this to be her home town. She worked at a McDonald's here, she went to high school here, graduated in 1979. In fact, at the high school's anniversary next year, they were planning to have her as a keynote speaker.

Behind me here is the church, they had church services here a little while ago. Unitarian Universalists Church that she attended, she and her family. And we were at the service a little while ago. And the reverend here spoke of the e-mail that she had sent from space on Friday. And she described her journey there as "awe-inspiring," she said, as "magical" and she also wanted to thank her friends for all the support that they had given her through all of her adventures.

And of course, her last adventure came up some 17 days ago and everybody was concerned about it launch. Launch, no problems, of course. And everybody assumed everything would be fine.

We talked to her brother this morning, who said he assumed everything was fine. And -- and -- but again, it was 17 days ago when those first anxieties came up.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When the thing lit off and started going up, that's when I really started to just worry, you know, the scene of the Challenger placed through your mind and I wanted to get through that, and just we all just willed up into space and they had the main engine cut off after eight and a half minutes or so, and it was just a big sigh of relief and OK, the hard part is over. Now, they've just got 16 hard days of work and come on back and give her a big hug. And I don't think any of us ever thought about the landing.


CABELL: Of course, she was a medical doctor during her life. She was a Navy surgeon. She had several tours of duty in submarines, and then finally, of course, she was an astronaut for the last few years. Her life-long goal.

Her father, at the age -- when she was nine months old, said that she suddenly got up one day, hold herself up by a chair and started walking, fell down, got up again and started walking again, this all on her own. He described her as a young child, as an infant, as a very determined little girl, and of course she became a very determined woman. Died at the age of 41 -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Brian Cabell, thank you so much from Racine, Wisconsin, the home town of Laurel Clark. Appreciate that report.

Now we toss it back to Houston and Wolf Blitzer -- Wolf.

Oh, actually, we're going to go back to Miles in Houston. Sorry about that, Miles.

O'BRIEN: That's OK, Daryn, no problem at all. As a matter of fact, this is an opportunity for us to talk to someone who has an awful lot of experience on space shuttles.

John Blaha is an astronaut who flew five times, first in 1989, and then on his last flight spent a significant amount of time as the third U.S. occupant on board the Russian Space Station Mir. John Blaha joining us now from San Antonio, Texas.

Good to have you with us, sir.


O'BRIEN: I'm just curious what your thoughts were yesterday as you watched this event unfold. Something that astronauts think about more than average people are the risks involved. And I know that many astronauts have always felt that it's just sort a matter of time before something like this happens.

BLAHA: Well, for myself, my son called me up and told me, "Dad, you need to turn the TV on." I turned it on at 8:15 central time and looked on CNN, and I saw that instead of a vehicle with one plasma trail, there were several vehicles with plasma trails. So I knew then that there had been a structural breakup of that vehicle.

And my heart goes out to the families and all of the NASA team who are now digging out of this tragedy.

O'BRIEN: Give us a sense, then, of what is in the mind of an astronaut during a shuttle mission, fully aware of the risks and having gone through all of those simulator training sessions that an astronaut goes through, going through every possible scenario for failure modes. Those astronauts, fully aware of what the risks were, and what they encountered and what they faced?

BLAHA: Yes, I believe you are. NASA has a tremendous training program that prepares you. They have a million, if you will, recovery plans that are automated and procedures that the crew trains on to perform.

Certainly, when there's a structural breakup of the vehicle in this regime of flight, just like there was in the ascent phase 17 years ago, you can't prevent that when that occurs.

But it's just a tragic event and a very unfortunate thing for NASA. But, you know, the NASA team will figure this one out. And I'm confident that they'll fix the processes and the machines and we'll get back to flying again, just like we did after the Challenger tragedy.

O'BRIEN: Well, what's your sense of it, Mr. Blaha? Is it a situation, do you think, where maybe there was a process that went awry? Or is there something more inherent? Is NASA, in general, flying the shuttle fleet safely, or was it flying the shuttle fleet safely?

BLAHA: You know, my answer to that, I left NASA about five years ago but I know the people who are some of the leaders in the program today. I will tell you what, they put so much emphasis on safety in the processing of our vehicles and the test procedures and checking out and making sure the vehicle is safe, and as you know, many teams of people are on the ground monitoring data throughout the missions.

So I think the vehicles are safe, as safe as human beings know how to make them. Certainly, out of this tragedy we may learn there was something else we still didn't understand about a reusable space vehicle, and we will, therefore, make vehicles even more safe for human beings to fly to space.

O'BRIEN: I know the unknown -- the engineers call them the unknown unknowns.

Prior to Challenger, though, there was that whole issue of, really, negligence, of ignoring the data which was there, which told them very clearly that they were skirting some safety issues.

I've had the sense personally that the specter of Challenger changed the way this agency did business. Is that an accurate assessment?

BLAHA: I think, overall, we certainly, after Challenger, just like the agency did after Apollo 1, we learned something, so we focused and made the whole system safer.

So I don't think it's -- I don't like the word "negligence" myself. I think human beings are trying to do the best they can within the bounds of human knowledge. Certainly, when tragedies occur it allows us to look deeper into something, and then we increase our knowledge, and then we make the process changes and the equipment changes necessary to make space flight safe so that we can, in fact, go there and get the tremendous benefits that we gain in knowledge by going to space.

O'BRIEN: Now, it's so terribly early, and we often find ourselves bordering on speculation here, but we have been talking quite a bit about that piece of foam, or whatever it was, debris, that fell off that external tank and struck the left wing on ascent.

I know shuttle astronauts I've spoken with -- I just talked to Norm Thagard a few moments ago -- anybody who's ridden a shuttle to space has seen that foam break off. It's not an uncommon thing.

Are we making a mistake if we focus too much on that right now, or do you think it's just too much of a coincidence to see something strike the left wing and then see the left wing fail on reentry?

BLAHA: Well, you know, anything is possible. I know one thing: over the months to come, we will learn -- with our technical expertise at NASA and in our industry team here in America -- we will learn the sequence of events that caused this structural failure of this vehicle, just like we learned the sequence of events that caused the structural failure of the booster seal during the Challenger accident.

And certainly anything's possible right now, and I wouldn't speculate on what that sequence is going to turn out to be.

O'BRIEN: John Blaha, five-time shuttle flyer, a former resident of the space station Mir, thank you very much for being with us. We do appreciate your insights.

BLAHA: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: And we're going to be back with more in just a moment. When we come back, we're going to be taking a look at the three people who are in space.

You know now the seven occupants of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Do you know who Ken Bowersox is? Don Pettit? How about Nicolai Budarin? They're up there in space. The question is, when are they coming home? And by what means?


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage, Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

This note: Three hours from now, 4:30 p.m. eastern, 1:30 p.m. on the West Coast, there will be a briefing here at the Johnson Space Center, a NASA news briefing. Executives, officials from NASA will be answering reporters' questions, what went wrong yesterday, what's next for the shuttle, what's next for the U.S. space program. CNN, of course, will have live coverage, 4:30 p.m. eastern. Daryn Kagan is standing by at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with more on what's happening there -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Yes, Wolf, and even though that news conference will be taking place in Houston, a lot of those same questions being asked right here at the Kennedy Space Center.

We decided to bring along our Miami bureau chief, John Zarrella, who has covered the space program for a number of years, to talk about those questions, mainly. John, hello, by the way.


KAGAN: What is next? And there are some very specific questions that need to be answered, not just looking at the whole program of NASA, but specifically about this space shuttle program?

ZARRELLA: You know, questions are already being asked, where do you go from here? It's going to be a political debate. It's going to be a dollars and cents debate. Can you get along with three shuttles once you get past this problem to service the International Space Station? Will it require building a fourth orbiter like Ronald Reagan did after the '86...

KAGAN: Because they had that same decision to make...

ZARRELLA: Exactly.

KAGAN: They made a decision to go with the fourth, but now all these years later, that might not be the right decision.

ZARRELLA: That might not be. There is plans an advanced space vehicle, eventually do away with the shuttles 20 years down the road. So do you put your eggs in the fourth shuttle, or do you go ahead and start pressing the case for a new vehicle? The playing field is different than it was in '86. In '86, it was -- the pressure was to get it all right. Make sure before you fly you get it right.

KAGAN: Take your time.


KAGAN: Different pressures, international pressures this time around.

ZARRELLA: Exactly. Much different international pressures, because now you have got three astronauts flying on the International Space Station. Eventually, you have got to figure out, as Miles was saying a little while ago, how do you get them back? How do you change out the crew? You need a space vehicle, a space shuttle to do that.

So NASA is going to be pressed this time, more than it was in 1986, when they took two and a half plus years to get it right before they flew again, to perhaps fly more quickly this time, because you've also got international agreements. Canada, Japan, the international, the Russians, the European Space Agency. They're all players now. And they weren't the players today that they were in 1986. They didn't have that commitment the U.S. space agency to those groups.

KAGAN: That's what happens when you take on other players, expand the family business. It's beyond just the U.S. right now.

ZARRELLA: You try to bring other people into the picture, make it a global space agency, International Space Station. So our commitment is not just to the United States. The United States commitment is to these other nations that are partners in these programs.

So, yes, there is going to be some serious issues there, Daryn, that have to be dealt with as to how quickly you fly again and what do you do after you start flying again? Do you build another orbiter, or do you quickly step up the pace? And that means a lot of funding and is the will going to be there in Congress to do that?

KAGAN: Real quickly, I want to ask you about those three astronauts that are up there right now. A lot of concern for them, but at least when I was talking to NASA officials here, they were saying, hold on. We do have a lot of things to worry about. That is one that is actually pretty much taken care of, both in terms of what happened today with the Russians launching that Progress module as they call it with extra supplies. But they are pretty convinced that the astronauts are safe up there and will have a safe way to get back down.

ZARRELLA: Yes, they'll be OK. That does not seem to be an immediate concern at all. They are fine through up until June so they can get through the spring. They just won't be visited by a space shuttle. They will be alone up there, no other company, but they'll be fine. And I am sure they'll be able to get them back.

KAGAN: John Zarrella, great to have your perspective here. You have an (UNINTELLIGIBLE) experience covering the space program. We are going to have a lot more from here at the Kennedy Space Center. Right now we will get a quick break and we'll be back after this.


O'BRIEN: The crew of the International Space Station was notified by flight controllers here in Houston about the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia about an hour after it happened. The response from the commander, Ken Bowersox, was that they were ready to stay as long as the supplies held out, ready to do their duty on behalf of NASA, on behalf of their mission of space exploration.

Big questions now about what happens to that space station. NASA is very proud of the fact that it has been continuously manned now for a couple of years.

The question is, without the space shuttle to ferry crews back and forth, supplies as well, where does that leave the space station crew? Might they have to leave on that Soyuz capsule, which is attached to the International Space Station, which serves essentially as a lifeboat, and perhaps mothball the space station for a period of time, leave it unmanned or unpiloted?

Renay San Miguel joining us now from Atlanta with more on Ken Bowersox, Nicolai Budarin and Don Pettit.

RENAY SAN MIGUEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, indeed, even with the American space shuttle fleet grounded, we still have Americans in space, and we still had the launch of a spacecraft today, this one from Russia. There you see Ken Bowersox, the commander of the International Space Station Expedition 6, science officer Don Pettit and flight engineer Nikolai Budarin. The Progress 10 cargo ship that launched today from Kazakhstan, the Baikonur cosmodrome, is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Tuesday.

They've been up there for 69 days, the sixth crew to man the ISS since the ISS opened for business in November of 2000.

They have enough food up there, according to Ron Dittemore, shuttle program manager, to last until June. Yes, the shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to dock up there on March 1 and bring that crew home and bring up a replacement crew, but that now obviously been put on hold. The crew did say that they could last out -- they will stay up there for as long as they have to while NASA decides what they want to do.

But I wanted to show you, we have a model here of the ISS, what would happen in case there is some kind of an emergency where they do need to bring Expedition 6 back home. This is the Soyuz lifeboat right here that is docked to the ISS; the Soyuz being, of course, the primary Russian space vehicle through the '70s and '80s. It was a Soyuz like this that docked with the Apollo during that historic meeting of the space programs, if you will, in space in 1975.

It's a three-person spacecraft, so it could bring those three back home. But NASA really wants to have the shuttle fleet, dealing with the ISS, it can bring more people, it can bring more cargo, and it has enough boost in its rockets to lift the ISS into orbits, because of the degradation of the orbit, it needs every once in awhile to be lifted back up into a better orbit so it won't go tumbling out of control.

And it's very important, this is kind of a symbol of pride, if you will, of the Russian and American space programs. It needs to -- NASA really wants to keep this in space. So there are some key questions that have to be resolved here in the near future, but for the moment, that crew can be taken care of, can come back home, if you will, if it has to, using this Soyuz lifeboat -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, CNN's Renay San Miguel joining us from Atlanta.

We should point out that the crew on board the space station currently has enough supplies and food and so forth to last through June, as Renay pointed out, an unmanned progress freighter launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and they can continue to supply them that way for the foreseeable future. But the question becomes, how long can you keep them up there? And a lot will have to do with what comes out of the investigation, which is just, obviously, at its earliest stages right now. The meetings going on right here, right now in Houston. The best and brightest of NASA, the real -- no kidding -- rocket scientists.

Joining us now to talk about how this investigation might play out and exactly how NASA goes about finding the causes in situations like this is Norm Thagard, veteran shuttle astronaut, a man who has spent a significant amount of time on the Russian space station Mir.

Norm, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: Give us a sense -- NASA really takes this process of learning how things go wrong to a science, literally.

THAGARD: To a science, and they will do it very exactly, according to rules that they already have in place, if not before, certainly since Challenger, and it'll be methodical.

O'BRIEN: So, give us a sense of what's going on behind closed doors now, these so-called mission management team meetings. They were burning the midnight oil last night, the engineers going over this captured data.

How do they go about just sifting through all this and trying to, in a coherent fashion, come up with a way of putting the puzzle together?

THAGARD: Well, you'll have your usual layers of management, and you'll have your teams, and they'll present their results to groups, and finally it all gets filtered back to the highest level of management.

O'BRIEN: I've heard it described as fault trees, where they kind of go through and go down little roads and if it leads to a dead end, it leads to others. It's a very organized thing. It actually comes out as kind of laid out in a schematic, almost, isn't it?

THAGARD: Well, I'm sure it is. Now, after the Challenger accident, my role became to be the casualty assistance officer for the Scobee family. So, I didn't actually go on one of those teams, although later on I got involved with some of them.

O'BRIEN: Give us a sense, in those dark days, what parallels you find to today and what things may be different 17 years hence?

THAGARD: Well, the parallel is, of course, we've lost another shuttle and another crew, and you've got all of the same feelings, especially for those folks who knew the people on the crew. And I knew four of the seven folks on Challenger.

The difference, I think, is in those days, we thought we had a real problem with NASA. I don't think there's that thought today. I think the thought is, this is an accident. It's got a cause. We'll find what is and we'll correct it.

O'BRIEN: So sort a, perhaps, a one-off, a fluke, if you will, if we can use that term. I don't know if that's the correct scientific term, the way NASA would accept it, but not something that reveals a NASA that has some real fundamental issues at its core.

THAGARD: That's exactly the case. I don't think we have a systematic problem here with NASA because NASA does everything it can these days to be safe. But nonetheless, you've got to find out what happened.

O'BRIEN: Norm Thagard, who will be spending a lot of time with us all throughout the coming days, we appreciate you being with us here and helping us have some insights on what lies ahead for this investigation and for space travel in general.

And for more on that, we're going to check in with a couple of senators who are in charge of NASA's purse strings, at least partially in charge that. Senator George Allen of Virginia and Senator John Breaux of Louisiana will be Wolf's guests in just a moment. Stay with us.



JAMES HARTSFIELD, MISSION CONTROL: This is Mission Control, Houston. A space shuttle contingency has been declared in Mission Control as a result of the loss of communication with the Space Shuttle Columbia.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our continuing coverage, Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy.

Joining us now, two key members of the United States Senate, both members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee: in Washington, Senator George Allen, Republican of Virginia, and Senator John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana.

Thanks, Senators, for coming in on this sad, very tragic day.

Senator Breaux, first to you. Do you still have confidence in NASA?

SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), LOUISIANA: Oh, I do. I think it's one of the most outstanding federal agencies that we have, but no agency is beyond legitimate scrutiny by the Congress.

We just received a GAO report, I think last week, that looked at NASA's oversight of some of their private contractors and basically said it was inadequate, and it was disturbing I think. These are the things that Congress looks at when we look at an agency to determine if they're doing everything they possibly can to make sure the program is being run correctly. BLITZER: What about that, Senator Allen? How do you feel about NASA in the aftermath of what happened yesterday?

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R), VIRGINIA: I think NASA has a lot of good people in it -- the engineers, the scientists, the technicians, everyone. And clearly this is a tragedy that they all feel strongly about. They're going to determine what caused it, and when they do, we'll learn from it, and we'll move forward stronger with greater innovation and greater safety.

My concerns with NAFTA -- or, excuse me, with NASA is that unfortunately the funding has been level overall, in the area of aeronautics it has been cut.

And there's a lot of research and development that can improve our military capabilities, as well as our competitive nature, compared to the, say, the Europeans or the Japanese, as far as aeronautics. And we're getting behind there. And that's a good source of not only security and safety, but also good jobs here at home.

BLITZER: Well, Senator Breaux, what about specifically the shuttle program? Is this money well spent, the billions and billions of dollars, at a time of economic instability in the United States, tight money, budget deficits? Is this money that should be spent specifically on the shuttle program?

BREAUX: Wolf, the shuttle program has been very important, along with the space station. We're learning things that are having real positive benefits right here on Earth, in medical research, in weather research, and engineering. These things are very important investments that the United States should continue to make.

But let us bear in mind that the shuttle program now is over 20 years old. The equipment is getting older every day. We need some new systems. We need to be working much more quickly on a new system to replace the shuttle system, and we're not doing that.

I mean, this program's going to be around for a long time. As long as there are frontiers to explore, there are going to be explorers willing to do it. We've got to make sure they're doing it with the most modern, up-to-date, technologically correct equipment, and we need some new equipment.

BLITZER: But, Senator Breaux, you know that doesn't come cheap. That requires billions and billions and billions of dollars. Some say that money is better spent on domestic economic problems right now on Earth, as opposed to in outer space.

BREAUX: Wolf, you're correct, there's only so much money available. We're looking at a $670 billion tax cut. I mean, you know, that's money that could be used, or at least a portion of it, to rebuild NASA, to look at the next generation shuttle that's going to bring men and women up to space and back.

We have to be a little bit more careful, I think, about how we balance our money and how we set our spending priorities. That's going to be the real challenge for this Congress.

BLITZER: How high of a priority is space exploration for you, Senator Allen?

ALLEN: Well, I think you need to look at it as a high priority, for our competitiveness, for our jobs, and also the advancement in the quality of our lives. I agree with Senator Breaux. Some of the benefits in medicine and pharmaceuticals and a variety of other areas are gleaned from the research and from what we learn on the space shuttle.

So I think that's part of one of the key missions of the federal government, which is national defense. Clearly it's also important to have research and development, education. It all fits in. NASA fits into all of that, whether it's space or in aeronautics. And I think it should be a priority.

I think that what we need is a strategic plan, a blueprint of where we need to go. Senator Breaux is right on the next-generation vehicle or plane, orbital plane, to get to the space station, and that clearly will remain a priority, and we need to upgrade.

And the cost? You're right. It's estimated around $10 billion for whatever the next vehicle will be. But nevertheless, we can't just sit here and do nothing. We need to keep advancing, keep improving and keep innovating.

BLITZER: Finally, to both of you -- and I'll start with Senator Breaux -- an investigation, NASA's going to have an investigation, an outside blue-ribbon panel has already been named to have an investigation.

What should Congress do? And what, if anything, should President Bush do, as far as a presidential commission, which, of course, happened after the last disaster, as all of you remember 16 years ago, 17 years ago?

First to Senator Breaux.

BREAUX: Well, Wolf, let me congratulate NASA for, I think, a different attitude that we've seen in this instance with Columbia than with the previous situation with the Challenger accident.

They've been very open, they've been very direct, they've called for already an internal investigation as well as an external investigation. And I think that's very positive on their part.

Of course, Congress will be involved. But we're not the technical experts, nor are we the scientists. But we can look at the overall blueprint for NASA to look at whether they are doing the proper job, whether we are funding them adequately. This is a legitimate role for Congress, and I'm certain that we will exercise that.

BLITZER: All right. What about that, Senator Allen? ALLEN: Well, I agree. Congress obviously speaks for the people of America, and we'll look at very closely the independent as well as the internal report. The president, clearly, is going to want answers. We're going to want answers. The American people will want answers.

And from that, we'll learn and we will move forward. This is a country that's always been one of adventure, of exploration, and we'll keep moving forward.

BLITZER: Unfortunately, we have to leave it right there. Senator Allen, Senator Breaux, always good to have both of you on our program.

Much more coverage coming up. Stay with us.


KAGAN: You're looking at a live picture right now of a building they call -- they refer to as the VAB, the vehicle assembly building, here at the Kennedy Space Center.

Inside that building right now is the Space Shuttle Atlantis. That was the next shuttle that was set to launch. March 1 was the date. In fact, next week they were supposed to take it out of the VAB and take it out to the launch pad. Of course that, like so many plans here at NASA, here at the Kennedy Space Center, on hold right now.

This story is about so much more than just the nuts and bolts of the shuttle. It is about people and the seven people who lost their lives. Earlier, we went to the hometown of Laurel Clark. She was one of two women on board this shuttle mission.

The other was Kalpana Chawla, a woman who very few Americans knew about before this tragedy took place. In India, in her home country, she is a natural heroine, and that was true even before the shuttle broke apart yesterday.

You're going to learn a lot more about Kalpana Chawla and all the shuttle astronauts if you stay with us here on CNN. A special edition of People in the News is coming up at 2:30 p.m. eastern. That's when you'll get a good look at the lives and personalities, accomplishments and families of all seven shuttle astronauts. We hope you'll stay tuned for that.

Right now we'll take a break. We'll be back after this.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special LATE EDITION, Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the Johnson Space Center here in Houston, Texas.

This half-hour, much more news, much more developments. We're also standing by -- 4:30 p.m. eastern, a news conference here. NASA officials coming out to answer reporters' questions on what happened yesterday with the Columbia, the space -- the shuttle, the Space Shuttle Columbia. We'll be carrying that, of course, live, 4:30 p.m. eastern, 1:30 p.m. Pacific.

We have much more coming up, but first, let's got to CNN's Anderson Cooper at the CNN center in Atlanta for a quick check of the headlines.


BLITZER: In addition to recovery efforts under way throughout much of Texas, there are also similar recovery efforts under way in neighboring Louisiana.

That's where we find CNN's Whitney Casey. She's joining us now live from Leesville. Tell us what's happening there, Whitney.

WHITNEY CASEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I just wanted to give you a picture of exactly how hard it is to find things here and what exactly NASA and FEMA and the Division of Forestry is up against here, because Leesville is the furthest site that they've possibly found things. They've found a cylinder in someone's yard earlier this morning, but they're also combing forest areas like this one.

And I just want you to see how dense this is. We're sort of crouched in here, but it is so dense that even walking through here is a bit perilous and harrowing, for the Division of Forestry and also some of the sheriff's departments that had to crawl through these forests and they are still looking through them for debris.

Now, in addition to that, the patches of forest like this that are sporadically throughout this area in Leesville, there's also a 250- to 300-acre national forest, Sabine National Forest, and a huge reservoir that parts of the space shuttle could be in.

Right now, they're looking at that, and they're also looking at whether that water, that reservoir, where all of these people get their water from, may be contaminated.

Right now, they're not allowing any fishing in it, but they're officially saying that the water is OK, but they're still looking at it and they have all of these forests to sift through, again and again and again, to try to find some of those pieces, Wolf, and we just, for the time that we've been here, just getting around has been harrowing. And, you know, for them, I can't imagine how hard it was. You really have to dig, look through things, because when they hit, apparently they go about four or five feet deep. So, Wolf, you can see it is a quite exhaustive experience here.

BLITZER: Whitney Casey reporting from Louisiana. Whitney, thanks very much for that report. Much more coverage coming up.

When we come back, we'll speak with the first Canadian woman in space. We'll have a special interview with her, get her thoughts on what happened.

Our special coverage, Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy, will be right back.


BLITZER: Let's go to Nacogdoches, Texas. That's where they're having another news conference on the recovery effort for hundreds of pieces of debris.

KENNEDY: ... we understand that Texas Senator Todd Staples (ph) is going to be arriving in Nacogdoches sometime mid-afternoon, after he goes to the Lufkin command center to see if he can garner some more information and support.

I just got off the phone with Congressman Jim Turner, and have been in touch with both of our Texas senators, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison. So they're trying to do the best that they can to help provide us some agency relief and responding to our concerns here in regards to the debris.

At this point, our number one issue that we have kind of moved to the priority list is, again, identifying those rural school districts that have debris on site, how those school districts are going to be managed so that we can help provide information to our superintendents to make a determination as to whether or not they need to cancel school tomorrow.

So we're coordinating that information right now through the appropriate officials to the governor's office so that he can help get the resources that we need to address that particular issue. With

having said that, I'm going to let one of the other gentlemen come forward to give you some information, and then we'll go after that to field questions. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stephen F. Austin State University is working in close cooperation with the authorities. We've extended our campus, we've providing -- we're providing rooms, showers, meals, but I think the most important thing is that we have our personnel in the discipline of geospatial positioning systems that have been working with the authorities to create maps that will track where the debris is being found.

I'd like to call on my colleague, Dr. James Crowell (ph), to provide some background on that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been working since yesterday in getting the debris field mapped. We've got at least a dozen teams out in the field following up reports, getting exact locations of debris items and descriptions of the debris items, and then mapping those out to help us hone in on the other parts.

KENNEDY: Let me make one other comment in regards to the maps. We've made a commitment to provide you with some public land locations where you can take your news crews in to film debris, and what we're dealing with in a very rural setting.

What we have asked for is some of those public sites to actually be plotted on a map for you so that you won't have to try to coordinate that yourself. Doctor Crowell's (ph) staff at the university is trying right now to get those together for you so that you will have a county map with confirmed sites on public land that you can then go to. And as soon as those maps are printed and provided to us, we will have somebody bring those out to you. Because you know that you're curious and would like to have that information. So we are trying to respond to you as quickly as we can.

Thank you, I'm going to let the sheriff come forward now.

KERSS: At this time, I'm just going to update you primarily on our manpower efforts. I have received word from the Texas Department of Public Safety that approximately 70 to 80 additional state troopers are en route to Nacogdoches County. They have not arrived here yet, but we do anticipate them in time to relieve some of the personnel this afternoon when we begin to make scheduled our changes at around 7:00 p.m.

In addition to that, during one of the last briefings, the question seemed to be how many additional incoming calls were we relieving regarding reports of new debris locations. And as best as my staff can determine, we're receiving an average of about 25 per hour. So if you want to do the math on that, that should show you about what we're up to in the number of site locations right now.

Other than that, as Judge Kennedy said, I'll reiterate one of our biggest concerns is hearing from FEMA on when we may be able to begin a collection process for some of this debris, or how long we may have to hold these sites before that begins.

I have spoken with some FEMA officials. They do have some crews that are staging in Nacogdoches. However, the proper word is not filtered down from them to be able to deploy those crews yet. So maybe we'll get a better answer by the 4:30 briefing on that. Short of that...


KERSS: Well, they have to receive approval from their proper authorities before they're going to go out into the field, and I'm sure that has something to do with a master plan that FEMA or the federal government is formulating to collect this debris, not only in Nacogdoches County, but throughout all of the counties involved, and once they get word of that, then they'll deploy their units.

But what that translates to me is I have people on the ground here that aren't able to go out and begin that collection process yet. So we will continue to man these site locations as best we can and to check out all the new sites that are reported to us.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) maybe you can help with us that. How many confirmed sites do you have and how many personnel do you have to match those sites?

KERSS: Well, obviously, each time I speak to you, our personnel has grown somewhat. I'm up to 96 National Guardsmen. I think I mentioned that before. Again, we're expecting an additional 80 highway patrolmen in here. That's on top of all the other resources we have. So we're getting up over 400 officers and support staff, National Guard, volunteers, et cetera, to go out and help us with these sites.

But we're also nearing about 1,200 locations. We're trying to stay on top of the site locations as best we can, but right now, the call volume still is bringing in more reports of debris than we have officers available to go out and check those.

QUESTION: Are you asking for volunteers? Are you asking for former policemen to come in?

KERSS: We're not putting out a public cry for volunteers. I'm certainly not in a position to want to enact the state of posse comitatus just yet, but we are relying on the resources that are being funneled to us through federal and state agencies, as well as surrounding law enforcement agencies that are offering their assistance to help meet the needs that we have.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) priority on size of debris? I mean, if there's something as small as a penny, are they really caring about that? Are they looking for larger pieces?

KERSS: Well, from a basic concern, NASA is pretty much interested in any and all debris locations. Our plan has been and it remains, any debris site that we can confirm, to go out, catalogue that using a GPS tracking device, take photographs and videotape, if possible.

Based on what the debris is described as, we will then make a determination on whether we rope off that scene and move to the next scene, or whether we actually position a person there to try and maintain the integrity of that scene until we're relieved.

QUESTION: Is there any possibility of a timeline on trying to get this done? If you've got 1,200 sites...

KERSS: At this point, I can't give you an adequate timeline. Obviously, the site locations are coming in faster than we can deploy people to each site.

However, we're probably about 150 to 200 calls behind right now in numbers of reported sites versus sites we've actually been able to put someone there on. And we'll just continue to run those sites.

Again, as I anticipated yesterday and it did prove to be the case, I also anticipate today, once darkness arrives, our call volume will decrease and it will allow us throughout the night to be able to catch up on some of the reported sightings.


KERSS: I addressed some of that. Theft has -- or removal of property has been a problem, but it has diminished. The number of reported sightings that we've had throughout the day today has decreased in terms of items being removed. And I think a lot of that is due -- and thanks to you in getting word out to our local citizens that they do need to leave this debris in place and not tamper with it.

QUESTION: You talked about it being radioactive, possibly toxic. Has anybody been displaced because of this?

KERSS: Again, there have been no confirmed illnesses due to any part of the debris from the space shuttle here in Nacogdoches County. There has not been anyone displaced because of the type of debris that we're dealing with. It's being put out as a precautionary measure. Most of the debris that we have checked has proven to be non- radioactive. We are having those screened...


KERSS: Well, people that are equipped in that field to go out with the proper equipment and make an analysis on that.


KERSS: There has not been any type of heavy equipment in coordination. Again, no word has really filtered down to us from FEMA on when a plan may begin to actually remove, on a large scale basis, any of this debris. And until we get that word, there won't be anything mobilized to enact that plan.


KERSS: No, there has not.


KERSS: No, that's not exactly what I'm saying. I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't put words into my mouth. But what I am saying is that common sense tells us, as well as the people from NASA, there was radioactive material on board. There was also volatile fuel on board. The additive that has to be placed into the fuel to keep it from freezing up at temperatures in space has a potentially dangerous reaction point.

So there are things that could exist. Those things may have burned up on re-entry as well. I'm not telling you that there is a definite factor out there, but I am certainly not trying to dismiss the fact that caution should be used, and I don't want our public thinking that it's OK to go out and handle this debris, or even get in close proximity to it, just for their own well-being, just operating under the assumption, better safe than sorry.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) potentially hazardous, to get it away?

KERSS: Well, certainly, I think that, again, let me stress at this particular time, all of the material that we have tested has not proven to be radioactive or highly toxic. If we come across material that does appear to be a potential threat, then we will immediately address that with the proper authorities and make a determination on how best to handle that.

BLITZER: Sheriff Thomas Kerss, the sheriff in Nacogdoches County in Texas, talking about the recovery of debris, the hundreds if not thousands of pieces from the Columbia shuttle that came down yesterday.

We have more coverage coming up, including an interview with two former astronauts, both of whom are women. Stay with us. Our special coverage we'll be right back.



AUDREY MCCOOL: He did not die in vain. This will go on. The space program will go on.


O'BRIEN: Got some early word from a source as to the shape of this investigation. A key meeting was held here in Houston, in Florida, in Huntsville, Alabama, and in Washington this morning. Among the key members of the investigative team, the internal investigative team that NASA has charged with trying to determine what caused the Columbia to disintegrate.

O'BRIEN: I can tell you that the first significant meeting, this so-called mission management team meeting, lasted about an hour and a half, primarily was devoted to procedural and logistics issues, trading cell phone numbers, e-mails, that kind of thing, who's where, why are they there. Lots of conversations about how and when to reach people.

But the source I spoke with described the atmosphere as starkly contrasted to the similar meetings which were held post-Challenger. He described them as being organized, as being in the spirit of good cooperation, that all the federal agencies involved in all this appear to be cooperating in a very cohesive manner, as opposed to what happened post-Challenger, which was, quite frankly, a lot of mayhem and confusion.

The one point that has come up that we've been focusing so much about, this debris which struck the left wing on ascent, as the Space Shuttle Columbia rose from Earth, the team which was charged with looking into that issue and which discovered that issue, looking at some high-speed, close-up films of the ascent of the Space Shuttle Columbia, is at this juncture second-guessing some of its suppositions and conclusions that it made, that basically that debris is something that was not unheard of.

O'BRIEN: We've heard that from many astronauts, that that foam came off on a frequent basis and caused no serious harm. They, nevertheless, are second-guessing some of their conclusions at this point.

This source did tell me -- I asked very pointedly if he knew of anybody in the space program who had the sense and who voiced very loudly the sense that this was, in fact, more serious than others were saying. This hearkens back to Challenger, when on the eve of that launch, 17 years ago, on the eve of that launch, engineers who were involved in that program were desperately trying to tell NASA not to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger. No such meetings were taking place, no such voices were heard, according to this source.

That's what we know for now. A series of meetings will be taking place all throughout each day, and we'll be tracking them as they go forward and as the data is uncovered.

Now, let's talk to a couple of female space pioneers. First, we're going to be talking to Roberta Bondar, who is the first female Canadian to fly on the space shuttle, on Discovery in 1992, an eight- day mission which was not unlike the mission we just saw, 24 by 7, scientific mission.

Some parallels there, aren't there, Roberta?

ROBERTA BONDAR, ASTRONAUT: Oh, Miles, very much so. Right from the shift -- right from the names of the shift, the red shift and the blue shift, 24-hour, seven. We had the same type of thing.

Although we had a space lab unit and they had a space hab unit, and they went to a lower inclination than we did. But many similarities, even some of the same experiments done on this flight that were done on my flight in 1992.

O'BRIEN: Interesting. Tell me what your thoughts are on this day after. Are you at all concerned about the future of piloted space flight in the U.S. and, for that matter, among Canadians who fly on the shuttle?

BONDAR: I'm not concerned more than hoping that people won't take this and run with it and use it as an excuse not to push the frontiers further and not to use space to be able to solve our terrestrial problems here, because that's one of the big benefits of space flight, as you've been speaking about earlier.

BONDAR: It's one thing that I get a little bit antsy about. I'm worried that people might use this opportunity to say we should send robots to space and that's it.

I'm not worried for the safety of crews, because I firmly believe that NASA, they're a very professional group. I enjoyed working with them. And they will get to the bottom of this.

O'BRIEN: Do you have the sense, as Norm Thagard expressed just a little while ago -- Norm Thagard, the veteran shuttle pilot -- that NASA continues to put safety first no matter what, perhaps -- hearkening back to Challenger once again, perhaps in contrast to some of the feelings before that terrible disaster 17 years ago?

BONDAR: Well, you know, Norm and I flew together in 1992, and we had a lot of opportunity, because we had a memorial service to the Challenger crew in our flight. We landed 11 years ago and two days ago now from that mission. We also had the death of one of our crew members 10 months before the flight in a commercial plane crash.

So we had a lot of opportunity to discuss safety issues. In fact, I was taken around to show some of the systems on the shuttle that are not redundant -- that is, that there are some systems still present that we can't really engineer better right now that could cause still, still could cause a problem.

I think NASA has had such a commitment to safety that this kind of accident, this kind of tragedy, really hits very hard. But it makes them even more so committed to the sense of professionalism that they have.

O'BRIEN: You knew the risks when you flew. All astronauts do if they're doing their homework. After having seen what happened yesterday, if you had an opportunity, would it give you second thoughts about flying again?

BONDAR: It wouldn't give me second thoughts. But I can tell you that on the ascent portion, as soon as the solid rockets blew away, we did a high five in the mid-deck. And, I mean, this is 1992.

I know that now, another milestone will be on reentry getting past that Mach 18, getting past that very high temperature load on the wings and coming in to land. People will savor that moment of landing, I'm sure, much more than we did in the past. I mean, we all loved coming back and touching Earth for the first time, even though it was a bit wobbly. It was a time that, I'm sure that every astronaut will agree with me, it was a wonderful time. But even now, in the light of this tragedy, it will become more meaningful to all of us.

O'BRIEN: Very good words.

Let's bring in another female space pioneer, the first U.S. woman to fly in space, back in 1983, Sally Ride, flying on board the Challenger at that time.

Sally, good to have you with us.


O'BRIEN: What are your thoughts, having witnessed what you witnessed yesterday, on this day after? Are you thinking about what might have went wrong? You're a technical person, and technical people tend to do that. Or are you thinking more about the loss?

RIDE: Frankly, I'm still thinking more about the loss. I'm confident that NASA has already started the process of doing everything that it can to try to understand the technical issues and the technical problems that led to the tragedy.

You know, my thoughts, the moment that I realized what was happening and realized what a horrible day we were in for, my thoughts went back to the Challenger accident and, you know, I just said "Oh, no," you know, "another day like this." O'BRIEN: Yes. You were significantly involved in that investigation, part of the Rogers Commission, the presidential commission which investigated Challenger.

Give us a sense, from your experience, what's going on right now. I talked to somebody -- I don't know if you heard just a little while ago. I talked to somebody who's involved in some of these meetings who said that the air of cooperation is there, unlike the way it was post-Challenger.

RIDE: Yes. You know, I think that the post-Challenger there was quite a bit of cooperation within certain aspects of NASA, and certainly there was a lot of cooperation in the collection of the data and the preservation of the data.

There was less cooperation at certain levels of management within NASA, once we started getting into some more difficult questions about the management process.

But I expect that right now NASA, both the internal investigation and the external investigation, will be focused on collecting as much information as they can, analyzing as much information as they can, making sure that no stone is left unturned, you know, looking for every piece of the orbiter that they can and looking through every bit of data that they can.

O'BRIEN: A pair of space pioneers, Sally Ride, preceded by Roberta Bondar. Thank you both for being with us. We appreciate your insights on this sad day -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Miles.

Thanks to Daryn Kagan, as well, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Our special coverage, of course, will continue. Up next, a special edition of "PEOPLE IN THE NEWS," a profile of the seven Columbia astronauts. Stay with us.


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