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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

How Long Was Shuttle Columbia Crew Alive?

Aired July 16, 2003 - 20:24   ET

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

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: There have been conflicting reports today on how long the crew members of the shuttle Columbia were alive after their last communication with NASA. "The New York Times" says it was about a minute, but other reports say any attempt to determine just how long they were alive is nothing more than speculation.
I am joined now by Dr. John Clark. His wife died in the shuttle disaster.

Thank you very much for joining us tonight, Doctor.

DR. JOHN CLARK, HUSBAND OF COLUMBIA ASTRONAUT: You're welcome, Paula.

ZAHN: I can't even imagine what a roller-coaster ride this must have been like for you and your son and the rest of the family. It's one thing to have to live with the headlines and the investigation, which have seemed to have -- dominated newspapers across the country, but now this, the conflicting reports of what the last several minutes of this flight might have been like. How are you coping with all of this?

CLARK: Well, it's been quite a number of months now. Gosh, I guess it's been five or so since this all happened. And as time goes on, that is very much of a healing process. Like Lorna Onizuka said, I wish that I could give them time, because that will help heal much of this.

So the fact that it's been so many months out now, it's not nearly as emotional state as it was early on. I follow the investigation very closely. I was down at Kennedy Space Center last week and went through the wreckage and saw the timeline that they had posted up there. So this latest newspaper article really wasn't much of a surprise to me.

ZAHN: So what you saw as you took that tour pretty much confirms what was in "The Times" this morning? You believe perhaps the members of the crew knew for a minute or two that the flight was doomed?

CLARK: I don't know if it was a minute -- it was two minutes. Certainly, when the loss of signal originally occurred, like 59 minutes after the hour, that was the radio call that was truncated from between Rick Husband and Charlie Hobaugh at capcom.

That was originally thought to be when everything occurred, the break up occurred. They had analysis of data that came off the shuttle, the downlink data, that had a lot of noise in it as the vehicle was moving, that they subsequently reconstructed several seconds at different points in time. And then there was the data from the onboard recorder, the OEX recorder, the flight data recorder. That, amazingly, survived intact through that breakup and reentry.

And that has shed, I think, a lot more light on the timeline.

ZAHN: And please, if you will, help me better understand this, when you were saying you're not sure if it was a minute or two, is there anything in that timeline that suggested just what kind of period of time we're talking about after that last communication and to the point at which everything blew apart?

CLARK: Well, I think we know that the data that they had downlinked was at least 25, maybe 30 seconds worth, even though it was only bits and pieces. So we already knew that there was a probably 30-second window from the time original loss of signal occurred. And then the reconstructive data stream established that 30 seconds.

I think the OEX data, I haven't seen all of the data, but I saw some of the timeline data. And I think what they're looking at is, as the breakup occurred, when was the cabin pressure lost? That would have been pretty much the end of the possibility for them to survive, once the cabin pressure was lost. I haven't seen the actual time that occurred. But it may have been seconds to maybe a minute after that original 20-, 30-second addition.

So that's where I think that minute, minute-and-a-half timeframe comes from. I haven't seen any official report on that, just bits and pieces here and there.

ZAHN: And even though you've mentioned that you've had many, many months to try to heal, how haunting is it for you to even think about the purpose of this crew knowing, whether it was the 30 seconds or even longer, that they weren't going to make it?

CLARK: Well, this has been a source of significant discussion in our family groups.

One of the things I think you have to look at is to try and find something positive in all this. And we've often speculated that, at the very end, that Rick or Willie took control of the vehicle and tried to fly it manually, which hasn't been done before and, in essence, were flying as test pilots in a part of the flight envelope that nobody else has done. And there's this actually kind of a sense that that's really neat, that they could be able to do that.

We don't know for sure that they had taken control over it, but that's -- our speculation is, hey, they were test pilots at the very end. And that's a source of actual inspiration as well.

ZAHN: Well, thank you for helping honor the legacy of that crew. And I've got to tell you, we all have such tremendous respect for the closeness of your community and the great strength you all have shown.

CLARK: Thank you. ZAHN: Good luck to you and your family, Dr. John Clark.

CLARK: Thanks.

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