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Analysis With Former Shuttle Engineer

Aired February 4, 2003 - 12:07   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Apart from the immediate questions of cause and correction, NASA and its overseers are being forced to look at the big picture like never before. Here now with some additional insights are the CNN shuttle analysts, Randy Avera, a former NASA engineer of the Challenger disaster, and CNN space policy analyst, Nick Fuhrman, a former senior staffer on the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Both men are joining us from the CNN center in Atlanta.
Let me begin with you, Randy. We hear a lot of talk that a piece of foam may have been the cause of some of the tiles on takeoff only seconds after takeoff. When we hear the word foam, we think of something very light. How likely is it that a small piece of foam, which barely weighs anything, could cause any significant damage to a hardened tile?

RANDY AVERA, CNN SPACE ANALYST: Well, it's really not so much just the size or mass of the foam. That's a variable about this, but it's the mass times velocity in that area of impact. Back in STS-7, I believe it was a "challenger" orbital mission, astronaut Bob Crippin woke up one morning and looked through a forward window -- the forward pilot windows, and they found a crater impact in the fused silica forward outer thermal glass windows of the orbiter. We removed and replaced that window, it was not acceptable to fly because of the impact, and that was a paint chip that was hit at very high velocity. So it's mass times velocity, the momentum of the impact.

BLITZER: Could cause that kind of damage potentially. Let me bring in Nick now, and ask him this. You have been involved in these kinds of investigations in the past. You have had oversight responsibilities. From NASA's perspective, as its internal investigation and external investigations begin to get going, what do they hope to achieve -- what do they want to see, and what do they hope to avoid?

NICK FUHRMAN, CNN SPACE POLICY ANALYST: Well, not to look the gift horse of candor in the mouth -- Ron Dittemore and Bill Readdy, among others, have been more than forthcoming and surprised many in the media at how well we are getting information so quickly, even before the memorial service this afternoon.

But they are following an action plan that was devised and written shortly after the Challenger tragedy, and they are working a recovery plan. This -- NASA doesn't do anything without a lot of training and without a lot of preparation. They wouldn't send an astronaut over the side of the shuttle to look at the wing without training him to do that, and they are certainly not going forward here without a plan, and the plan has two major components.

One is to find it, fix it and get us flying again. And the second is -- to use a crude analogy -- to keep the surgery confined to a laser kind of a surgery, not open heart surgery. They want to keep the public and the overseers focused right on this piece of ice, the foamsicle (ph), that I call it, keep it focused there and not have a budgetary discussion or a large -- a national debate occur which would bring into question some of the policies and procedures of the agency.

BLITZER: I am sure they are not going to succeed in that latter effort because that big policy debate, especially on Capitol Hill, is already underway.

Let me bring back Randy and ask this. The discovery of this nose cone, how significant, potentially, could it be?

AVERA: Well, the nose cone is a reinforced carbon-carbon piece -- imagine like a cap, and the cap attaches to the aluminum structure of the forward fuselage. That's a very high temperature area. It is where, as the orbiter pierces through the atmosphere, it is where the molecules that strike the nose have to decide which direction to go around the fuselage. Very high temperature, very important piece, and behind that reinforced carbon-carbon, that gray nose cap, there are alumina-silicate blankets in there and titanium foil, which -- not just the heat that's visible, but the radiant heat that penetrates through that nose cap and could attack the structure inside there, that aluminum structure. That structure is protected by those blankets behind that nose cap, and it's going to be very important to look at the forensic type evidence, heat path, flow path, and heat damage in those components.

BLITZER: But as Miles O'Brien just said, what might be even more significant -- and it is a might -- is if they found any debris in California, which presumably would be the initial pieces of the shuttle to separate.

FUHRMAN: Wolf, if I was sitting in my windowless cubicle on Capitol Hill still, I would be waiting to see something about the landing gear door, and the tile structures around where the fault occurred in the left lower fuselage.

BLITZER: You want to pick up on that, Randy?

AVERA: In any airborne incident or accident leading to a crash, the first pieces that come off are very important, in that something made them come off, and it's important to determine whether that was a contributing or secondary cause of the event.

BLITZER: All right. So we will be watching to see if they find some of that debris in California. Very significant potentially. Thanks to both of you for joining us, Randy Avera and Nick Fuhrman, CNN analysts covering this story, helping us understand better what's going on.


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