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Special Coverage: Columbia -- The Shuttle Tragedy, Part III

Aired February 2, 2003 - 18:39   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You have been listening to a press conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Bob Cabana, the director of flight crew operations, as well as Ron Dittemore, space shuttle program manager speaking for about an hour and a half or so, going into great detail, a lot of information perhaps some of the more technical information which we'll talk about in a moment.
Perhaps the biggest bit of news right now, Bob Cabana stating just at the end of that that we have found remains of all the astronauts. Those remains are still to be identified but Bob Cabana confirming that NASA has found remains of all seven of Columbia's astronauts.

One of the people in that press conference, our Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien, who in the last 36 hours or so has shown his knowledge of the space program to be nothing short of extraordinary. As I said he was in the press conference and it is to him we go for some analysis now at the Johnson Space Center in Houston -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, right at the top of the press conference, after Ron Dittemore laid out sort of the organizational issues on how to go about going through this whole complex puzzle that is an investigation of this nature, complex, probably a euphemism.

It's hard to comprehend how they're going to put all these pieces together, but you had a sense that first of all this is a fairly well run ship thus far, fairly well organized. Contrast that to the post Challenger investigation which to a person everybody who was involved in that and who was around at that time described it as in disarray, mayhem is the word. It was a difficult time. NASA was not as prepared for this.

That last five minutes we had some incredible detail about what happened to the orbiter Columbia that last five minutes, 8:54 a.m. Eastern time, high temperature readings in the left fuselage section of the orbiter, 60 degree spike in five minutes whereas, on the other side, a 15 degree spike over the same period of time.

Interestingly, though, the temperature inside the cargo bay, the payload bay, normal, 8:58 a.m. over New Mexico the elevons or ailerons, those are the control surfaces, the flaps at the tail end of the space shuttle were compensating for a problem which was tilting the shuttle to the left. It was trying to compensate for that tilt to the left but putting in trim, in other words moving those control surfaces in the opposite direction.

This is something, in other words it was trying to go this way and so the computers were trying as best it could using those flaps on the back to try and reverse that trend. That is consistent, according to Dittemore, with the loss of a tile or rough tiles, these black tiles on the surface.

Now, 8:59 a.m. over West Texas, the roll trip on that was not saturated which means it hadn't completely reached the point where it was out of authority couldn't do its job but it was doing everything it could to get the vehicle back into level flight where it was going this way. So, it tells you that all the failure modes were going on here. It was getting hot over here and the orbiter was dipping in that direction.

There's a lot more to go over as you said, Anderson, very long news conference, a lot of technical detail. Someone here to help us sort it out is Norm Thagard, shuttle veteran who is now with the Florida State University. Norm, what are your thoughts? One thing that came out was an interesting little artifact if you will about the computer data and how much data they have in the computers here at Mission Control.

NORM THAGARD, FORMER ASTRONAUT: Ron mentioned that after the loss of communications the vehicle was still well under control, meaning although it had the trim in, it was well within the ability of the computers to command the flight surfaces and the reaction jets to maintain it.

And then he indicated that after the loss of calm, there was another 32 seconds of data that has to be hand analyzed basically because it had problems. It had errors in the frames the way they send the data down in packets, so they'll have to go in and go through.

O'BRIEN: So, in other words there was some sort of a stream of data coming from Columbia apparently but kind of a sick stream or an intermittent one and we don't know how to -- how to interpret that is a difficult question, right?

THAGARD: That was my sense of it. If I'd had the ability to ask Ron to clarify we'd ask is that what you mean but it sounded like he was saying there was still another 32 seconds of data coming from the vehicle after the loss of communications.

O'BRIEN: All right, a lot of time spend discussing not the end of Columbia's final mission but the beginning of the mission, 81 or 82 seconds after launch there was an event that has a lot of people's attention, not just in the media but many engineers all throughout the NASA community.

Let's take a look at a close-up. We managed to blow up some tape that we get typically, engineering news cameras of the assent of the space shuttle. And, if you take a look, look at that close-up there, let's do it one more time, you see very clearly a white piece, a white flash that seems -- there you go. You see that right there. There's the circle and then it goes out of view, but it's very clear that whatever fell off there appears to have struck the underside somewhere of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Norm, this is a hard thing to interpret and they're asking us to do a lot of armchair engineering here. What do you think of that?

THAGARD: Well, it's white and I've seen the white stuff come off the external tank on several missions. It is foam insulation usually. If it's ice I think you'd worry a lot more because ice could potentially be harder, have more mass. You wouldn't really expect the foam insulation to do much damage.

O'BRIEN: All right, the ice is the issue and we've got to remind folks of what's inside that orange external tank, the coldest substance on earth, liquid hydrogen minus 400 degrees along with liquid oxygen. That's the rocket fuel that powers the main engines on the space shuttle.

Randy Avera, former NASA lead engineer on the shuttle program, give us a sense if you would of how much significance that white flash has. First of all do you think you've isolated the moment in time that we're all talking about?

RANDY AVERA, AUTHOR, "TRUTH ABOUT CHALLENGER": Here at the CNN Center we've looked at two videos, the one that you've just seen plus another angle that shows a more white visible object passing in the area under the belly of the orbiter where the black tiles are located, and then apparently makes impact and is atomized and as the debris or particles continue towards the flame of the solid rocket booster they vaporize.

It's important to note that NASA is doing a very important thing here very well. Back in 1986 when the orbiter Challenger was breaking up we had photos and videos very early on showing the crew module flying through the air and then a big bright flash where the propellants in the nose of the orbiter in front of the crew module had a big bright white flash.

Well, that made us think a lot of things that took us down a wrong path. What NASA is doing very well is following the correct procedure, looking at the data and here on this orbiter model that we have it's in this area of this rectangular shaped door the main landing gear wheel well door.

Now, I've worked inside that wheel well before and the whole landing gear strut and the tires and brakes retract up into here and there are mechanical systems, electrical wiring and hydraulic lines in here and what NASA is describing is a spike of temperature inside this wheel well.

The wheel well is part of the wing assembly. It's part of the wing structure and that's what NASA is looking at and what effect, if any, did this have on the performance of the ailerons.

And what NASA is also describing is that the orbiter on the left side is actually being pulled, as Miles and Norm have been pointing out, to the left, and just like the inner ear in humans, the balance system in the orbiter is called the inertial measurement unit for roll pitching yaw rates that senses this tug and pull and the general purpose computers and software compensate to pull it back on trajectory for the approach to landing.

O'BRIEN: Now, Randy, one thought I have in looking at that tape and, granted, we don't have the best view here. There's some high speed film which we'd love to get a hold of and take a look at which the engineers have used, but it appears that white flash that we see strikes near the nose. I don't know if you concur with that, Norm, but it's very difficult to tell where it ultimately ends up I suppose -- Randy.

AVERA: Well, my direct comment on that is that what you see is not always what is the case and the lesson learned in '86 is the optics from video is very deceiving.

It's only one small piece of the large equation NASA is trying to solve to find out all the variables, whether it was one event that caused this problem or a combination of events, and specifically what's the difference between a malfunction and a failure. That was a very important thing back in '86 talking about solid rocket booster O- rings and steel casings. What was the failure and what was the malfunction?

O'BRIEN: Norm Thagard, what are your thoughts of what we're seeing there and whether that is striking where we hear there were problems, which is to say the left wheel well?

THAGARD: Yes, it's very difficult in that picture, Miles, to tell exactly where it does hit. It potentially hits back in the left under wing area, but again that video is not very clear.

O'BRIEN: And just picking up on Randy's final point here, Norm, this sense of we got to really watch ourselves getting the blinders on here. This is important, right?

THAGARD: That's absolutely true because if it is foam material, which is the most likely thing for it to be, it almost certainly didn't cause this kind of damage. It hits the lens screens on the shuttle and all it does is streak them. So, if it's not breaking glass in there you wouldn't think it would do this kind of damage.

O'BRIEN: Randy, but having said that, going from the blinders comment to this fact, wouldn't it be an amazing coincidence if there was damage to the left wing on assent and it just so happened on the descent to earth the area of the left wing was the point of failure?

AVERA: There are many factors that go into this. Last night we were talking about with astronaut Story Musgrave how the way we used to describe the shuttle, a butterfly strapped to a bullet and we showed earlier today on CNN how the glass coating on a tile is very fragile, about the thickness of your fingernail. That's that black ceramic glass coating on the black tiles. And also, we've been in orbit for 16 days. There are micro- meteorites. There are a lot of factors that could play in and all of those scenarios have to be analyzed, thought of, documented, and digested, and conclusions are far down the road.

O'BRIEN: Norm Thagard you were around for Challenger, became as astronaut in 1978. What are your impressions thus far of what we have seen, the glimpse that we have seen of this investigation?

THAGARD: It seems to be a lot more open. There seems to be a procedure in place. It's more organized and I would imagine, and I know, that after Challenger NASA went to an emergency action plan so they had everything laid out step wise that they would do if there would be another incident like that and I think it shows this time.

O'BRIEN: Randy, would you concur with that?

AVERA: The main goal in NASA conducting the investigation was to develop that procedure. The NTSB taught NASA how to investigate such crashes and accidents and incidents and NASA helped teach the NTSB what spacecraft are about, and this is a great example of cooperation between federal agencies for the public safety.

O'BRIEN: Now, Norm, there was this other issue of if, in fact, the engineers had determined that there was significant damage in a day or so after launch and according to Ron Dittemore they did not. But if, in fact, they did as Dittemore has put it they basically had zero options, nothing they could do about it.

THAGARD: There's not much you can do. You can't send it to the International Space Station. It can't stay up forever. It's got to come home. The only possible thing I can think of as I remember early on when we talked about entries you had the option if you had too shallow an entry. You basically got to dissipate the energy. It's the area under a curve.

You can do it in one big blip and get a lot of immediate heating, or you can do it slowly. If you do it too slowly then you accumulate heat and it can sink back to the structure afterward. You might elect to go to that even though you're going to accept damage to the structure after landing.

O'BRIEN: Of course what Dittemore pointed out is that they do the absolute optimal reentry as it is in order to protect and preserve a reusable vehicle.

THAGARD: A reusable vehicle but in the scenario I'm talking about you would perhaps give up on reusing the vehicle and accept the fact that after landing soak back through the tiles might cause structural damage.

O'BRIEN: I see. All right, Norm Thagard thank you very much for pointing that out. I appreciate that. Randy Avera, I appreciate your insights as well. A long news conference, lots to digest, but lots of information to give us a sense of where this investigation is headed on this the day after the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. I'm Miles O'Brien reporting live from the Johnson Space Center.



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