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CNN BREAKING NEWS

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

Aired February 1, 2003 - 14:00   ET

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

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Again, it is just after 2:00 o'clock Eastern time. We are expecting any moment to hear from President Bush. He will be addressing the nation from the Cabinet Room there at the White House.
Suzanne, when this happened, the president was at Camp David, planning to spend the weekend there after a very difficult week dealing with Iraq.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Judy. This is really a pivotal weekend for the president. As you know, Secretary of State Colin Powell to go before the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday to present the case against Saddam Hussein, additional evidence. This administration under a great deal of pressure from some U.S. allies, who want to see more information, more evidence to -- that would justify the possibility of using military action against Saddam Hussein. Already, the president really having quite a full plate this weekend.

I should also mention, as well, Judy -- just kind of a sign of the times -- one of the assumptions that so many people made when they first saw that this shuttle was missing, that they lost contact, was terrorism. That was something that people were thinking about. In 1986, that was not necessarily the first thought on everyone's mind. Clearly, this White House, as well as many people, aware of the possibilities of the danger, but senior administration officials telling us there is no indication that that was the cause of this tragedy today -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, Suzanne. As we said, we are waiting for President Bush to speak to the nation from the White House, from the Cabinet Room.

And again, as we wait for his remarks, my colleague, Miles O'Brien, who's been with us all morning -- Miles, I -- even at this moment, I have a sense that -- you know, there was an enormous reluctance in 1986, when the Challenger exploded, for people -- nobody even wanted to think about going back into space again, at that point. But you do have the sense now that Americans have somehow -- as horrible as this is, we have somehow come to the realization that space flight is dangerous, we will lose people from time to time. No one is saying we won't go into space again.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, let's remember who was aboard Challenger, Christa McAuliffe -- civilian, teacher. That launch, that tragedy was witnessed by school children all across this country. It was devastating for so many people, and particularly for children. And there was a certain poignance to that which made it a little more difficult, I think, for people to handle -- the sense of a civilian on board that shuttle, not fully appreciating the risks, in this case, a crew completely made up of test pilot-types, engineers, career astronauts, who fully understand the risk. Perhaps that has something to do with it. Perhaps the fact that school children the world over were not necessarily witnessing what we just saw this morning. Perhaps that changes things.

As we look at Mission Control in Houston -- this is a remarkable scene here -- you're seeing the good people of NASA whose job it is to watch a space shuttle while it is in orbit from those consoles. Every last little technical item on a shuttle has a readout on a screen down here, so that they know precisely what is going on at any given moment. Someone asked me earlier is there a black box on the shuttle. That room is the black box. There is a constant stream of data to that room, giving them a full sense of what's happening to every last piece, every last system of the space shuttle.

Right now, that team, which has spent the better part of the morning collecting its data, gathering up its data in order to prepare for an investigation, is now ready for what we are ready for, which is the president of the United States, who has returned to the White House, will be addressing those good folks at NASA, who worked so hard to make space travel, while risky, a reasonable thing to do, and the rest of the nation.

Let's listen to the president.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 9 o'clock this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas.

The Columbia's lost. There are no survivors.

Onboard was a crew of seven -- Colonel Rick Husband, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Anderson, Commander Laurel Clark, Captain David Brown, Commander William McCool, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, and Ilan Ramon a colonel in the Israeli air force.

These men and women assumed great risk in this service to all humanity. In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the earth.

These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

All Americans today are thinking, as well, of the families of these men and women who have been given this sudden shock and grief. You're not alone. Our entire nation grieves with you. And those you loved will always have the respect and gratitude of this country. The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.

In the skies today, we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see, there is comfort and hope.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."

The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home.

May God bless the grieving families, and may God continue to bless America.

O'BRIEN: President Bush, after returning from Camp David to the White House -- oh, he's coming back. Let's listen in. All right, we've obviously lost the signal from the president, and we'll try to figure out what that's all about in just a bit.

But we know they didn't return safely to earth, he said, but we know they are home -- president Bush touching a chord today of sympathy for the family members who lost their loved ones. In Mission Control, they stood at rapt attention for the president, as he addressed the nation and addressed them. They, too, feeling the loss there, as we look at the scene there at Mission Control.

Judy Woodruff, difficult thing for a president to address the nation at this time, isn't it.

WOODRUFF: It certainly is. And Miles, you know, right now, coming in the midst of the crisis -- the United States faces the decision, the president faces, with regard to whether to go to war with Iraq, this was the last thing, I think, on the minds of -- in all fairness, of the people who work with the president closely day in and day out. Of course, it was the last thing on all of our minds.

Everyone come to assume once again, over the last 17 years, that space flight is safe as it possibly can be. We're reminded again today that it is subject to error. Of what kind, we don't know. But this is a day when the presidents, I think it's fair to say, earn their pay because he had to make that -- those calls to the families of the seven astronauts, which has to be the hardest thing that any president ever has to do. You know, if you read -- if you read anything of history, you know the presidents who speaks to the widows of those lost in combat -- it is a job that none of us would covet.

O'BRIEN: Indeed. Indeed. Finding the right words -- and hearkening back to those words of Ronald Reagan, which are as poignant today as they were in 1986 -- "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God." George W. Bush using the same sorts of parallels and symbolism and analogy and reference to fate at this terrible moment of tragedy and mourning here in the United States, as it becomes evident that the space shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven is now lost.

Let's listen in one more time to that moment in Mission Control, that last transmission. Everything seemed to be going routine. You'll hear the voice of James Hartsfield, public affairs officer for NASA in Houston, as well as some air-to-ground communication. At the other end in the shuttle is Rick Husband, the commander of the space shuttle. Let's -- and let's listen in on that.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

JAMES HARTSFIELD, NASA: ... toward Florida, now approaching the New Mexico/Texas border. Altitude, 40 miles. Speed, 13,200 miles per hour. Range to touchdown, 1,400 miles. The shuttle in the left bank with wings angled about 57 degrees to horizontal.

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

RICK HUSBAND, SHUTTLE COMMANDER: Roger...

(END AUDIO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Half-staff at the White House, a nation begins a mourning for the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, seven brave astronauts pushing the envelope, exploring the high frontier. And then, inexplicably, it all ends in an instant, 200,000 feet above the state of Texas.

Before they left, I spoke with the first Israeli astronaut ever to travel to space, Ilan Ramon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Ilan Ramon. That was obviously while he was in flight. I apologize for that. That was the Saturday after launch. He was telling me what it was like to try to look down on his home country of Israel. He said he had a little difficulty finding it. Ultimately, he did get a good chance to see it. He conducted a series of experiments, among other things, to test the links between dust particles in the air and global warming.

Rick Husband was on his second flight, his first as a commander, and he talked a little bit of flying with Ilan Ramon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - JUNE, 2002) RICK HUSBAND, SHUTTLE COMMANDER: Personally, the thing that I have really enjoyed the most about Ilan and his family is just their warmness and the openness that they have in sharing their home, and from my standpoint, also just learning more about Israel, learning more about, I'd say, Jewish culture. And with myself being a Christian, I take a specific interest in kind of the biblical or spiritual aspect, as well, which has been a very interesting thing for me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Rick Husband, as he referred to there, a devout Christian, learning a little bit about Judaism through the eyes of Ilan Ramon, Ilan Ramon his crewmate on this mission which was oft delayed, a series of problems with the shuttle and scheduling issues. Other missions took priority for the international space station. This mission finally taking off some 16 days ago and going, up until that point, at 9:00 AM Eastern time this morning -- up until that point, nearly flawlessly for the seven-person crew, as they conducted a series of experiments, some 80 experiments in all, over the course of this 16-day mission.

NASA has -- is in the early stages of its investigation already. As you look at this tape from WFAA, shot from Dallas, you can see what happens. What seems like a single streaking meteor quickly becomes three, four, five meteors as the space shuttle Columbia breaks up in mid-air traveling 18 times the speed of sound at an altitude of some 40 miles above us. And that picture tells you what happened but offers up many, many questions to us, at this hour, as to what could have happened, what might have caused it.

A whole series of things will be discussed and looked at. And as one of the people we talked to earlier mentioned, an engineer who was involved in the Challenger investigation, no one in the early stages of the Challenger could have anticipated that it came down to a rubber o-ring that was too brittle and thus allowed hot gases to spill from those solid rocket boosters on the side of the space shuttle -- spill into the external tank and cause an explosion in there. That's ultimately what happened. At the initial stages after Challenger, they were looking at the main engines and something there.

So it took some time for them to come up with that whole scenario. Eventually, it was found. Eventually, it was fixed. And eventually, they flew. It took the better part -- two years, almost, really, three years before the return to flight of the space shuttle Discovery. And that is probably the kind of timeframe that we're going to be talking about here, as NASA and the country endeavors to find out precisely what happened to the space shuttle Columbia before any other shuttle leaves the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.

Let's get a recap from now Daryn in the newsroom -- Daryn.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Miles. We're going to do a couple of things here. We're going to do that recap, and we're also going to talk to some of the people who saw the shuttle or some of the debris coming down. First, a recap of today's tragic events, beginning with space shuttle Columbia making its descent to Earth. It broke up over Texas this morning. It was planned to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. When you look at the video, you can see fiery pieces falling from the shuttle. This is very much like the video that Miles was just showing you.

As we're also watching from NASA -- NASA lost contact with the shuttle around 9:00 AM Eastern. The shuttle, as you're watching it, was about 200,000 feet and traveling at speeds of 12,000 miles per hour when contact was lost.

Government officials say terrorism is not suspected. The shuttle was simply too far away from Earth for that to make place. Debris from the shuttle rained down over east central Texas, and it goes all the way into Louisiana. Officials are warning that the debris could be hazardous and should be avoided, and they are certainly urging residents who find debris to immediately contact authorities, to not go near it, do not touch it.

Of course, we cannot forget the astronauts who lost their lives. Seven crew members aboard this shuttle were killed. NASA says their families, at this point in time, are definitely getting support.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL READDY, ASTRONAUT, ADMN., HUMAN SPACE FLIGHT: I'd have to say the families are bearing up with an incredible amount of dignity, considering their loss. We all grieve for them. We all pray with them for the crew. But one thing came across loud and clear when visiting with them is they knew that the crew was absolutely dedicated to the mission that they were performing, and I think you could see that in the video downlink. They believed in what they were doing. And in the conversations with the crew and their families, they said that we must find what happened and fix it and move on. And we can't let their sacrifice be in vain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAGAN: Seven incredible astronauts on board the shuttle. Let's go ahead and put a face on the crew. Rick Husband was the 45-year-old commander of the crew. He also was an Air Force colonel. He comes from Amarillo, Texas. He says he made up his mind as a child that he would be an astronaut. It was his lifelong dream. Husband was selected as an astronaut back in 1994. Talk about perseverance -- it took fours tries until he was accepted into the astronaut program.

William McCool was the pilot of Columbia and a Navy commander. He also comes from Texas -- Lubbock, Texas. He was born in San Diego and was the father of three sons. McCool became an astronaut in 1996. He was making his first space flight.

The payload commander, Michael Anderson, was 43 years old. He also was an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was born in Plattsburgh, New York. NASA selected Anderson back in 1994. He was one of only a handful of African-American astronauts. Kalpana Chawla was 41 years old. She is a very interesting story. She was born in Karnal, India. She emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. She became an astronaut in 1994. This was her second space flight. She is a national heroine back in her home country of India.

David Brown was a 46-year-old Navy pilot and doctor. He was also a Navy captain. He was born in Arlington, Virginia. He joined the Navy after medical internship. He became an astronaut in 1996, and Columbia was his first mission.

Dr. Laurel Blair Saltan Clark -- she was the other woman on board. She also 41 years old, a Navy commander and the flight surgeon. She became an astronaut in 1996. She lived in Racine, Wisconsin. She has an 8-year-old son.

And then Ilan Ramon. Israel's first astronaut, a hero in his country, Ramon was a colonel in Israel's air force. His ancestors survived the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. His wife and his four children live in Tel Aviv.

And now we go back to exactly what took place early this morning. A lot of people saw what took place in the Texas area and then saw the debris rain down from Texas all the way to the Louisiana border, as we mentioned.

Mark Davis is a talk radio host. He's in Dallas, Texas, and he's joining us on the phone right now. Mark is WPBN (ph).

Mark, thank you for joining us on this day.

MARK DAVIS, WBAP TALK SHOW HOST: Hi. No problem. WBAB (ph) in Dallas/Fort Worth. And it was in this area over north Texas, obviously, in the video imagery that people are seeing right now, this is what it looked like. There's not a whole lot of zoom that's on this particular video image.

So I and some of my neighbors were out in our respective front yards, engaging in pretty normal space geek activity, watching a shuttle come in, on the rare occasions that it appears over the north American skies. And just juxtaposing it with the last time we had this experience -- it was a nighttime event, about 10:00 o'clock in the evening, and far less of the sky was involved. It went from about 30 degrees up in the horizon pretty well straight down to the southern horizon.

This was a full 90 degrees of sky. The first bright sparkle of the shuttle reentering came just exactly 8:00 o'clock our time, Central time, and right above our heads, and then moving very slowly, taking every bit of a minute to go all the way down low in the southeastern sky, on its way, of course, to Florida.

The first difference -- if anybody had seen any of these before, lucky enough to be out when a shuttle reentry was in the sky before -- is that it's usually a fairly clearly drawn single line of fire. This is, of course, a fireball in the sky any time a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere. But to have sparkly things come off it was not immediately an item of panic because anybody who's seen "Apollo 13," where the special effects are quite competent, knows that things are going to fly off of a spacecraft that's reentering the atmosphere.

But would those things be so big that you could see them from 38 miles below? Would these things be so big that they would create their own separate contrail? Well, obviously, the answers to that would be no. And that resulted in the wreckage that you guys are showing right now.

KAGAN: Right. So Mark, let me just jump here in a second and ask you -- as you said, you're a self-professed a space geek -- a number in your neighborhood. So you had gone out to watch this reentry, and you describe what you thought it should have looked like from previous reentries that you looked -- you had watched. But at what point did you and your neighbors, as you were watching this, get a sense that something definitely was not right?

DAVIS: Well, it's kind of funny. To our interested but still relatively untrained eyes, the moment at which it was pretty clear that something bad was happening is after we finished up a little conversation, said, Wow, wasn't that neat, put our cameras and binoculars away, came back in, grabbed a refill on the pot of coffee, fired up CNN, and it wasn't landing.

I mean, this is how fast this thing goes at 12,000 miles an hour. It's directly over our heads in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, area at 8:00, due on the ground in Florida at 8:16. I was probably back at my house at about 8:10. I figured, This is great. Shuttle landings have become so routine, as you well know. I'm sure your coverage plans this morning called for joining it a couple of minutes out from landing, where it's a little white speck, then it lands and everybody says that's great, and then you're back to, you know, last night's basketball scores.

Well, obviously, it was not a normal landing and there was no landing to cover. So that was when my phone starts ringing off the hook. I start calling everybody, and it's time to head in here to WBAB to do some coverage of our own.

KAGAN: Interesting just to watch it by itself. You didn't really realize at that particular moment that something had gone so terribly wrong.

DAVIS: Well, no, and that's what's so different between now and almost exactly 17 years ago, with the shuttle Challenger. I was up early to watch that, too, which probably -- it's funny. The Challenger launch had a little bit of layperson interest because you had Christa McAuliffe, first teacher in space. So the ratings for that for you guys and everybody else were probably a smidgen higher than for the ordinary, routine shuttle launch for the shuttle Challenger. The shuttle program had existed for about five years. Now it's existed for two decades. These flights are as normal as a jetliner taking off from your local airport.

But yes, we were there, and we were going to watch whatever coverage you guys provided. And when it became clear there was no landing to cover, all those feelings from 1986 are back. And Daryn, I know covering it and for us covering it here in Texas on radio, everything old is new again. Reagan's speech in '86, his biblical or godly references juxtaposed with President Bush's...

KAGAN: Right. Mark -- Mark, I'm sorry...

DAVIS: ... just a few moments ago...

KAGAN: I'm just going to -- I'm going to jump in here. Of course, you understand, covering it there from Texas, we do have a lot of other news to get in, as we try to move the story forward. Thank you for joining us so much from Texas. Mark Davis, talk show radio host. Thank you so much.

Now we want to move it up to Washington, D.C., and Judy Woodruff -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Thanks, Daryn. Getting a sense from Mr. Davis, the perspective of -- so many different perspectives this morning -- somebody who lives in the state of Texas and works in the news media.

Daryn, with us now or will -- who will -- somebody who will be with us in just a moment was literally, I think you have to say, the face and the voice of space flight in the United States during the 1960s and the 1970s, really, the beginning of the space program in our country, when we were all excited. School children would gather around to watch on television for every space flight that took off.

He is none other than Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchor, who's been retired now for some years, but has always maintained an interest in space flight, has -- over the years, as I said, his name literally became synonymous with NASA, with following so many of the earliest space flights. You know, if we saw it, we watched CBS, we watched Walter Cronkite. So CNN wanted to talk with Walter Cronkite, and he will be joining us now in just a moment. We're just pulling all the -- we're pulling all the technical pieces together to get Mr. Cronkite on the air with us.

And while we wait for that -- he's going to be joining us from Manhattan -- I want to go to Jerusalem, to Israel, the home country of one of the astronauts on this space shuttle Columbia mission.

Joining us is Raanan Gissin. He is a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Mr. Gissin, we know President Bush called your prime minister just a short time ago. Can you tell us anything about their conversation?

RAANAN GISSIN, ISRAELI PM SPOKESMAN: Well, first of all, you know, I mean, let me just say this is a very tragic and mournful day for the people of the United States, for the people of Israel, for the families of the astronauts, but also, a very sad day for all of humanity. And I think that was reflected in the conversation between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon, which just took place a short while ago.

The president said that it's a tragic day for science, it's a tragic day to the astronauts, and mentioned that on that space shuttle there was one brave Israeli citizen, Colonel Ilan Ramon, who has also died in this endeavor on behalf of all humanity. And he offered his personal condolences, as well as the condolences of the American people, to the family of Ramon and to the Israeli people.

The prime minister reiterated and offered his sincere condolences to the families of the astronauts, and also said in his final words -- he said that it's on these difficult and hard moments that the hearts of the American people and the hearts of these the Israeli people are bond together. And at these difficult moments, we're holding hands together, and together we pray.

WOODRUFF: No question about it. Mr. Gissin, this question has been asked to some of your countrymen already today, but I want to ask you, what does it mean, what has it meant to Israel to have, for the first time, one of the astronauts aboard an American shuttle?

GISSIN: Well, you know, it's not just a question of personal ambitions and personal pride, or I would say national pride that we have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) out there. But I think it's a reflection of the shared values that we share with the people of the United States. This is the quest for the stars is to try and make a better world here on this Earth. And you know, we've been living through conflicts for the past 100 years here, and bloodshed, but this endeavor, this journey to space, you know, reflected or encapsulated all the hopes of the Israeli people to see a better future, a better world here on this planet, in the little corner of the world where we live, here in the Middle East.

WOODRUFF: How much personal interest did the prime minister take in Mr. Ramon and this whole mission?

GISSIN: Well, you know that he conducted a conversation just about 10 days ago with Colonel Ramon through the space shuttle, and there was an exchange, you know, which was broadcast here in Israel and captivated the audience. And you know, I can recall Colonel Ramon saying that from above, from 280 kilometers, you know, Israel and Jerusalem, they look like a tiny -- it's a tiny state and -- but a beautiful one. And the prime minister said, you know, We will continue to support your dream. We will continue to support your vision and try to make Israel really the kind of beautiful state that you see it from above.

WOODRUFF: Those words from Raanan Gissin, who speaks for the prime minister -- newly reelected, we should say, or newly re-chosen prime minister -- Ariel Sharon.

As I was saying just a moment ago, the man who was the face and the voice of American space flight during much of the 1960s, 1970s and -- is Walter Cronkite, former anchor for CBS News. He joins us now on the telephone.

Walter Cronkite, you know, there have been some terrible tragedies. You've covered some of them. But here we have another tragedy in space, and it must bring back memories for you.

WALTER CRONKITE, VETERAN JOURNALIST: Well, indeed, of course, it does to all of us. It brings back the memory of the other great disaster we had out there with the Challenger. But it reminds us of other things, too. It seems that we somehow are destined to be reminded from time to time of the dangers that we face in this exploration of space. You know, with our successes of flight after flight, we seem to fall into the mistaken belief that travel in that great void of space can be routine. And then we get these terrible reminders of how wrong we are, that we get reminded of the daring and the courage that marks those who understand the hazards and then so bravely undertake the missions for science and for their country. It's a reminder that it's too bad we can't keep in our noggins somehow, even in the days when things are going so well.

WOODRUFF: But -- we're talking to Walter Cronkite. But you know, early on, we were all very acutely aware, in the early days of the space program, of just how much risk was involved. How did that dissipate? How did that begin to slip away?

CRONKITE: It dissipated normally because of the success of our flights. I said at the time, when we were seeing these flights go for the first time, when we went through the one-man Mercury programs, the two-man Gemini programs, and then into the flights eventually to the moon -- I said that with all the drama of that moment, there was going to -- the day that we were going to be a success with our space exploration was the day that we didn't pay any attention to the flights, that they went with the routine practically of airline schedules. And that's what has been happening, of course.

Our shuttles have been rising and succeeding in their difficult task out there in space, even building this space city that we're now occupying with the Russians. The -- they -- the flights have become routine. It takes something like this to wake us up to the fact that this is not a routine business at all.

WOODRUFF: And we should continue to remind people, of course, that there are three astronauts in space now on the Russian space station. We're talking on the telephone with Walter Cronkite, who covered for the CBS News for so many years space travel.

How are astronaut -- how are these people who take this enormous risk -- how are they different from you and me, from the rest of us?

CRONKITE: Well, a great number of them, the professional fliers, of course, have chosen that career of risk, in the first place, by becoming not only ace pilots in the military services but test pilots, as well, in which they -- every flight is loaded with danger of the unknown. They're trying out equipment that has never been flown in the air before. They -- that is their career. To them, it is only another step to move into that -- the uniform of an astronaut.

For the others, the doctors -- we had a couple aboard this flight -- the specialists in one science or another who go in the pursuit of their science -- they are extraordinary individuals who have chosen to get out of the laboratory and the hospitals and learn the secrets of survival in space, and then they make these flights. I think we should applaud all of them.

WOODRUFF: Walter Cronkite talking with us on the telephone.

Miles O'Brien, please join us.

O'BRIEN: Walter, I'd like to tap your deep reservoir of knowledge and memory. We remember Challenger so well and how long it took for NASA to get back in the skies. It was almost three years. Of course, the Apollo I fire, which happened in 1967, January 27th -- interesting, coincidentally, like, the day before -- there was less a period of time because it was in the midst of the moon race. Those were very different days, weren't they?

CRONKITE: Yes. I didn't quite understand you. Is this...

O'BRIEN: The period of time...

CRONKITE: Is this -- is this Miles?

O'BRIEN: Yes, it is.

CRONKITE: Yes, right, Miles. I didn't quite (UNINTELLIGIBLE) You're doing a great job this morning, by the way, Miles, as CNN and the rest of us now expect.

O'BRIEN: Well, thank you.

CRONKITE: But I didn't quite understand your last question.

O'BRIEN: I was trying to remember how long it was from the Apollo I fire to the return to the Apollo missions. It was much quicker. It wasn't the full three years that we recall from the Challenger days.

CRONKITE: Oh, that -- that was a long one, of course. That was the longest delay. That was longer than the one, I think, that succeeded the Challenger disaster. I can't remember the exact numbers now, but it seems to me it was two-and-a-half years or more, wasn't it?

O'BRIEN: Well, I can't remember the numbers right off the top of my head, but I -- what I'm trying to point out here is that there will be a fairly long period of time here for all of this to play it out. As Bill Readdy of the Manned Space Flight had said, we got to, you know, find it, fix it and resume.

There is tremendous resilience to the space program, which you can attest to, from its earlier days. I'm curious, can you feel -- do you feel confident that there will be a return to flight one day for the United States?

CRONKITE: Return to what?

O'BRIEN: A return to space for people...

CRONKITE: Oh, of course. O'BRIEN: ... in the United States.

CRONKITE: A return to space? I don't think this will seriously interrupt our program. Of course, it's going -- it's going to depend entirely on how early they're able to determine the cause of this tragedy and what it requires to fix it. That's the timetable that we face now.

But we're committed to space. We're not going to desert the exploration of space because of a setback, as tragic as it is. We're committed, and we're going to continue. The only debate, as you know, now in the space program -- and I think this is the only debate that will continue -- is the proportion that we devote to robotic space, the space -- the early experiments in landing on Mars with unmanned flight, and the devotion of time and expenditures of manned flight in space.

O'BRIEN: And that debate will continue, regardless of the outcome of all of this.

CRONKITE: Yes. Absolutely. This may -- this may bolster, to a degree, the argument of those who claim we can do as much with robotic flight as we can with manned vehicles. But the argument for manned vehicles is still very strong, that the curiosity of the individual who's landing and walking on those distant orbs out there in space is of a value that cannot be replaced by machines who are simply communicating with men on Earth.

O'BRIEN: Do you think, Walter, that the American people, up until something like this happens, take this for granted, what we see routinely there?

CRONKITE: Yes, I do. I think that -- you know -- well, you know, Miles, as well as any of us, that these shuttle flights don't even get in the newspapers, the back pages, not even by the funny -- by the comic pages. There's no mention of the flights at all unless, indeed, there's a daring deed out there in repairing the Hubble telescope or something of that kind, or helping to build additions on the sky city up there, the international orbit. We don't pay any attention at all. It's routine. It's as routine as the commuter trains running out of New York City. Maybe more so.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes. Maybe more so. Let's take a look at that crew for just a moment. And I wonder -- you know, they go into it with not a blase attitude. I know all these people, and I talk to them all the time, and what they tell you to a person is, this is a real dicey proposition. It is risky business and -- but a calculated risk. That's the term they use. And they go to space fully aware of those risks. And I was talking to Judy a little while ago about how different it is when you're talking about a group like this compared to the Challenger days, when we had a civilian member of the crew, Christa McAuliffe. Is that -- do you think that's different in the mind of the American people?

CRONKITE: Well, the -- we know that those involved in the space program are fully aware of the dangers, the skill with which they put together the spacecraft, the precision with which the machinery is built to avoid things like happened today. And it's interesting, as you know well from your time around the space program, that our astronauts don't swagger through their days' work aground, but they are looked on, at the same time, by their fellow workers who are not astronauts, but the ground crews -- they're looked upon as heroes to be.

O'BRIEN: Walter Cronkite. Yes, much is made of the "white scarf." We use that term, but the white scarf is perhaps a pejorative that doesn't fit for these people who fully understand the risks and are not out there, as you say, with that swagger.

Walter Cronkite, thank you so much for being with us.

CRONKITE: You bet, Miles. Hang in there.

O'BRIEN: All right. We are now going to turn our attention to a special guest who's joining on the line who is enduring a particularly tough morning. June Scobee-Rodgers, the widow of the commander of the space shuttle Challenger, Dick Scobee, Joining us on the line from her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

And June, I just -- it's got to be a terribly difficult thing to see this, particularly for someone who has been through what you've been through. Just tell us what you thought and what it's brought back for you.

JUNE SCOBEE-RODGERS, WIDOW, CHALLENGER COMMANDER: Thank you, Miles. It's a tragic day for our nation, for the NASA family, and especially for the dear families of the Columbia crew. Our heartfelt prayers are for them. I know that they're flying back to Johnson Space Center now. And I had calls wanting to talk to the commander's wife, and we're going to talk eventually. But it's something so difficult because a private loss is so public and it's shared with the nation.

O'BRIEN: Tell me, without violating the privacy of your conversation, what can be said between June Scobee-Rodgers and Evelyn (ph) Husband today? What can you tell her to ease her pain in any way?

SCOBEE-RODGERS: We could talk about the day, just getting through the day with your loved ones and friends and prayers, and to know that they're in the hands of God, that their loved ones have surely "slipped those surly bonds of Earth, and God's put out his hand and holds them. And I would want God to hold them close.

There's so much to be concerned about with their families, and I would hope that they're taking care of themselves and the NASA doctors are taking good care of them. To feel the prayers of the nation -- when they say they're sending prayers, they are. And to feel the love of all of those people and to know that we care so much for them and know their loss. It's -- it's -- so difficult and it's such a tragedy and it's so unfair that it happened. But the world -- the world knows how they died, and if they can just remember and hold on to the dream of what they were living for and what their mission was all about, then that dream will see them through.

O'BRIEN: Boy, that's -- those are tough words. And I know you've told me many times that in the wake of Challenger 17 years ago this past week, you really not even long after the incident, were talking to then-Vice President Bush. And you expressed at that time your firm belief that your husband, Dick Scobee, would have wanted to see NASA press on. Do you feel -- I know you don't know Rick Husband, necessarily, but do you feel that that is the spirit of this crew?

SCOBEE-RODGERS: What dear people. Yes. I couldn't -- anyone who believes so much in the space mission of the discovery of opening new vistas and to learning about the space frontier, you know, they're living -- they're living for that discovery of space exploration. And they -- so many of them signed up to NASA to fly in space with vision and hope and knowing that it would bring so much more information to our planet to help us. With those dreams and fulfilling those dreams, they -- I can't speak for the current Columbia crew, but if they signed up to fly with NASA, that must have been their dream that they would want fulfilled, as well.

O'BRIEN: June Scobee-Rodgers, our best to you on this day, which must be particularly poignant and painful for you, as well. And we appreciate you taking a few moments with us.

SCOBEE-RODGERS: God bless you all.

O'BRIEN: God bless you.

As she spoke, we were watching, yet again, that shot. You can see it right there on your screen, somewhere south of Dallas, Texas space shuttle Columbia, about 9:00 AM Eastern time, was streaking across, Mach 18, 200,000 feet, and just went from a single fireball to multiple fireballs in an instant. Communication abruptly ended in the middle of a conversation from the commander, Rick Husband, and immediately prior to that, there's some indication of some problems with tire pressure. What that means, we don't know.

It may be quite some time before we ever have any sense of what really happened and what caused the space shuttle Columbia to break up, but we've already seen the first steps towards that conclusion. First thing the flight controllers did in Houston was tell their people on those various consoles to put together their notes, capture their data, put notes in boxes, seal it up, get it ready for the investigation. Not long thereafter, we saw Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, saying that the wheels were in motion already for an independent commission to get to the bottom of this particular incident, an independent commission that will ultimately report back to the nation and give NASA and the rest of the nation a sense of what went wrong.

And then Bill Readdy, the head of the Human Space Flight, associate administrator of Human Space Flight, talking about finding it, fixing it and moving on. Moving on will be a real challenge for NASA, depending on what comes out of this. It could take quite some time before we see another shuttle fly. It was almost three years from Challenger's accident until Discovery flew and the return to flight. We're now in the early stages. It's a time for mourning. It's a time for questions. The answers will come much later -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Miles, I -- as we keep showing that picture over and over again of the first sign of -- that something was gone -- had gone wrong visually, I keep thinking how hard it is to reconcile the beauty of the sky, the beautiful crystal blue sky over the state of Texas, with that thin, white vapor trail, how hard it is to reconcile that with the awful thing that happened. And it -- again, it reminds me of the Challenger. You know, the picture was -- itself was spectacular. It was red and white and the blue background. And here again, a beautiful blue sky, and yet concealing a horrific accident that's taken the lives of those seven brave people.

President Bush learned of this, we are told, just shortly after NASA realized what had happened, about 9:15 this morning Eastern time. He was at Camp David, and he made his way pretty soon after that back into Washington -- Camp David, of course, being in the Catoctin Mountains outside of Washington in Maryland. Now you see this is a live picture of the White House, the flag there flying over the White House at half staff. And it was just about 45 minutes ago that President Bush addressed the nation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: At 9:00 o'clock this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia.

(BUSH STATEMENT)

May God bless the grieving families, and may God continue to bless America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: President Bush, who spoke to the nation about 50 minutes ago. We're replaying the president's remarks. The words at the end, I think, we all carry with us in our hearts. "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home."

I think we also should note the president -- made it a point to say the cause in which they died will continue. Our journey into space will go on.

We've been talking all morning about -- in the aftermath of the tragedy 17 years ago, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after it lifted off, there was a hiatus, two-and-a-half, three years before the shuttle program resumed. There was a lot of -- there were a lot of questions raised, many doubts about whether space flight -- manned space flight in that form should continue. Now it seems there is less questioning. I think there's more of an assumption that it will go on.

Yes, there'll be an investigation. Yes, there will be -- investigators will go over every piece of information, every piece of data, all the debris. In fact, we've just been told that the Louisiana -- the Air National Guard in the state of Louisiana, our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon is telling us, is broadening their search. They're looking over a very wide area, not just, we know, in Texas, but in Louisiana, perhaps in Arkansas and elsewhere, making sure that every piece of debris that came down from the space shuttle Columbia, anything that came down from that shuttle is retrieved.

We're waiting for a second NASA briefing. This one, we're told, is going to be more on the technical side. But every piece of information is important, at this point, when we know so little about what happened. We can only speculate.

And I know my colleague, Miles O'Brien in Atlanta, you've been asking some very good questions of these former astronauts and others who know the space program. But there have to be millions of pieces of information that have to come together before they're going to know any answers.

O'BRIEN: Yes, I think -- I think that isn't an overstatement, Judy. There probably are millions of little pieces of data that will have to come together and put this puzzle together. The first sense of where this investigation is headed will, hopefully, become evident to us when we hear from the program manager, Ron Dittemore, and chief flight director Milt Heflin. They'll be joining us live out of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which is the home of the astronauts and the home of Mission Control, as you well know. They expect to be addressing the nation and NASA and all of us in the next five minutes or so. We expect to hear from them.

A little while ago, we were talking about the gaps. It was two- and-a-half years -- or almost three years, really, between the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the flight of Discovery, the return to flight. It was inside two years from the Apollo I fire to Apollo VII, which was the first manned Apollo mission -- went from January 27, 1967, to October 11, 1968. That was right in the absolute heat of the space race, and they completely redesigned the Apollo capsule in the course of the process. That was a different era. Don't expect to see that kind of level of support. The funding levels are just not -- do not equate to those days of the space race, the heart of the moon race.

But throughout all of this, NASA will put safety first. NASA has put safety -- has put NASA safety issue has been first for quite some time. Prior to Challenger, there was a desperate attempt on NASA's part to prove that it was an operational vehicle with airliner capabilities. And at that time, it became very evident, in the course of that investigation, that NASA managers themselves were fooling themselves on the safety and ignored engineers who told them that there were serious problems launching shuttles in the cold weather, and they did it, nonetheless.

I can tell you from my experience, NASA post-challenger does not have that attitude. And every last little piece of those shuttles is pored over with a mind toward safety, and the flights are flown with safety first. NASA no longer is trying to prove anything of an operational nature with the shuttle. There's recognition it still is an experimental vehicle.

Let's go to Nick Fuhrman, who's had some experience on Capitol Hill with the space program and who has worked as a space analyst.

Nick, let's put this in perspective from the political side of it. We're talking about how inside two years, they completely redesigned the Apollo vehicle after the Apollo I fire, and then post- Challenger, almost three years. Is this -- it's hard to say, but when -- how long does an investigation like this take? How long before the nation's ready to fly again?

NICK FUHRMAN, SPACE ANALYST: Oh, this is the day, of course, all of us dread and that NASA, not the least of which, you know, Bill Readdy and others, work to defy. And defying this dreaded day is really what running the shuttle is all about, as you know. I think it could take a long time. I believe the cause that we discovered in Challenger was so obscure, it was a confluence of horrible accidents. It wasn't just the o-ring, it was where the o-ring broke.

And as a result of that, you know, putting those tiny pieces together, looking at the one million signatures that were signed off to launch this shuttle two weeks ago, all of the paperwork, all of the work that was done on the Columbia orbiter recently, the upgrades -- was something left behind? Was a sponge left in, like, you know, they worry about in surgery? All of the paperwork is going to be examined and combed through to see if there isn't some vulnerability that laid on top of another vulnerability. And that's how complicated it'll be, and it'll take a long time.

O'BRIEN: When you talk about -- and Judy used the term millions of pieces of data. And at first I thought, Wow. But that's really what we're talking about, literally, as the flight controllers cart up page after page of documentation. There is one thing that we can say safely. Every piece of data relating to that vehicle is now in the hands of Mission Control.

FUHRMAN: Well, I hope it is. I mean, every piece of data, you know, includes things like the test that was done on the glue that holds the tiles to the orbiter, the weld inspections that were done when Columbia was in for its major upgrade. That's the degree of detail and paper that's around. And it's not just at Houston or at Cape Canaveral. It's in California and other places, in laboratories around the country where the work was done. So it's a lot to pull together.

O'BRIEN: Well, it's often -- it's often interesting though and you talk about this paper. Everything that is done on a shuttle is associated with paper. There's a saying that the shuttle is not ready to launch until the stack of paper equals the height of the shuttle stack on the launch pad. And what that does it does give these engineers something to go back to and in a very comprehensive way say this particular tile was glued on this particular way.

FUHRMAN: That's right. But you know, every time something bad happens; you'll notice that all the paper was singed. You know there have been a lot of almost terrible things that have happened in the shuttle program. One time they closed up the back of the payload bay and went to turn the shuttle up, to carry it -- to mate it to the rest of the stack, to the boosters and to the fuel tank and they heard a large clung. Well, it turns out that the scaffolding that was in the payload bay was left in the payload bay before they did that maneuver. And so, you know, all the paper was signed.

O'BRIEN: Yes, those things do happen. We are talking about something that involves, after all, human beings.

FUHRMAN: Well, it's a human tragedy. And -- but we're the only creatures on the face of the earth that actually explore. You know animals don't go exploring. Humans are unique. We're one of a kind. And I think we'll keep doing it.

O'BRIEN: All right. Good words to leave it on. Nick Fuhrman, space analyst, thank you very much for being with us.

Let's send you over to Daryn and give you a recap on what's been going on all this morning.

KAGAN: All right, on top of everything, Miles, we want to remind everybody we're expecting just about now for there to be another news conference out of NASA at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. As soon as that does begin, you'll see that live right here on CNN. That will be the second update that has come from NASA since this tragedy occurred at 9:00 a.m. Eastern this morning.

While we are waiting for that news conference to begin, let's go ahead and recap for our viewers who are joining us. What we do know -- the nation is mourning death of the seven members of the space shuttle Columbia. A recap of the morning's tragedy -- as NASA officials notified President Bush and Homeland Defense Security Tom Ridge that Columbia did not make its scheduled landing. At around 9:00 Eastern, Mission Control lost contact with the orbiter. Witnesses in Texas and Louisiana watched the spacecraft break apart.

It was some 200,000 feet above the ground, these pictures that you're watching right now. At that altitude, experts say an act of terrorism was probably not the cause of what went wrong this morning. President Bush cut short his stay at Camp David to return to Washington and to address the nation. Here is some of that speech.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: This day has brought terrible news and agreed sadness to our country. At 9:00 this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAGAN: More now on the debris. Search and recovery teams have been deployed from Ft. Worth, Texas, to look for that debris. It has been reported across a 100-mile wide area of Texas and into Louisiana. Officials are warning people, stay away from anything that might be a piece of potentially hazardous wreckage.

Let us not forget the astronauts who lost their lives this morning. Among the seven Columbia crewmembers, Commander Rick Husband was at the helm along with the pilot, William McCool. Colonel Ilan Ramon, that was Israel's first astronaut in space, also payload commander, Michael Anderson, mission specialist, David Brown. Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark were the two women onboard.

We are getting word on the NASA briefing we were expecting to start at the top of the hour. A fifteen-minute delay right now. The current word is 3:15 p.m. Eastern, that news briefing will begin and you'll see that live here on CNN.

Meanwhile, more now on the debris field. As we mentioned, it is very large. When anything falls from that far high up, it's going to fall over a large area. Our Ed Lavandera is at one site where some debris has been spotted in Nacogdoches, Texas and he turns -- tells us more about that -- Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Daryn. We're about two blocks south of downtown Nacogdoches. And as we've driven in from Dallas this morning -- and we have crews that have gone from the Palestine area into Nacogdoches as well. And scenes like this are very common throughout east Texas.

This is just a small piece of debris. As you can see here, it's been roped off. A lot of people have been coming here, gathering, taking pictures all over Nacogdoches from what I've seen here. We just arrived in the city about half an hour ago and have been able to see it in various spots where little pieces of debris have been roped off not only here by military folks here, but we've also seen places as we were driving in where people, farmers, had roped off the area, telling people to keep on moving through. So not just the official help here in this area helping out this situation.

A lot of people who just live in the more rural areas outside of Nacogdoches taking it upon themselves to make sure that none of the pieces that have landed here throughout this area are disturbed, not only for investigative purposes but also for the purposes that you've heard the NASA folks talk about all day that there is perhaps a toxic and health reasons for why people would not want to touch this debris. So as you might imagine, for many of the folks here in the Nacogdoches area, a very frightening moment.

We're joined by Melissa Russ, who lives here in Nacogdoches. Melissa, describe what it was like for you this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This morning roughly about 8:03, the walls started shaking, a thunderous noise booming, which seemed to be right in our back yard. It lasted for about two minutes, loud, thunderous noise. I've heard people describe it like a railroad. It was amazing. The house shook.

LAVANDERA: Two minutes?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: About two minutes. It seemed like an eternity. It would not let up. It was one thunderous clap after another, a rolling sensation. Our dogs went bananas trying to get into the house. So... LAVANDERA: And you had no idea what it was?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had absolutely no idea. We called 911 and reported it since we are close to the airport thinking perhaps an airplane had gone down. And indeed, they said, they had had no report of that. We turned on CNN and that's where we found out about the shuttle having blown apart.

LAVANDERA: You've been driving around town. Are scenes like what we're showing here pretty common?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Absolute, very common. And as you had stated earlier, every piece is roped off whether it's on your personal property. People have roped it off. We have the military out there. But yes, there are several areas in Nacogdoches that look just like this.

LAVANDERA: You're with your children today. What have been telling them?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we had a long discussion about it. And they're excited to be a part of history only on a very sad note, of course. They were shocked to hear that it happened right her e in their community. But they're taking this upon themselves as a very educational experience.

LAVANDERA: All right. Thank you very much, Melissa.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

LAVANDERA: So Daryn, as you can see here, this -- I'm not exactly sure if we've asked the folks here if they know what kind of piece of material this is. We're trying to keep people as far away as possible, so trying not to cross the street here to get in their way. But as I mentioned, Daryn, this is a very common scene. A lot of the pieces that we have seen are very small quite frankly, nothing longer than five or six feet long in diameter and -- or in height.

So Daryn, back to you.

KAGAN: Ed, any reports of injuries on the ground there as the debris fell in that area?

LAVANDERA: We haven't heard. Well, we had a chance to speak with some of the city officials here a little while ago as we were driving in. But we haven't heard any of those reports. There have been so many reports, as you mention, Daryn. This is a huge area for the authorities here to have to comb through for information and for any kind of evidence. So a lot of the reports have scattered from a very large area, but no major reports of injury or anything like that at this point.

KAGAN: And you talk about how what we're seeing there is a common sight around Nacogdoches and the area. Do you get the sense as you're able to drive around that people are respecting wishes of authorities not just from a safety perspective, but in order to respect the investigation that they are cooperating and staying away rather than letting curiosity or perhaps greed get the best of them?

LAVANDERA: Absolutely. We're just -- about two blocks away from here, there is a really -- a piece of the shuttle, which doesn't appear to be more than six inches long and it was on a sidewalk. Someone had come around, spray painted it and literally, there was a huge crowd of people around it and no one would even come close to touching that little piece of material. So it's kind of an interesting sight on a sidewalk in the middle of downtown Nacogdoches here.

KAGAN: And I don't know if you had a chance to talk with any people like this because I know you were in a hurry to get to a site where you could bring us some live reports, but we talked to some folks in Dallas who were already outside because they knew they would be in the path of where they could watch the shuttle do its reentry and head toward Florida for its landing.

LAVANDERA: Yes, I was in Dallas this morning when this happened and my understanding is that some of our CNN affiliates were taking live pictures of the shuttle passing over because it was such a -- it's such a crystal clear, beautiful day here in Texas. Even the conditions were supreme for being able to witness the space shuttle coming overhead.

In fact, from what I understand, it was a good friend of mine who is a photographer in Dallas shooting the scene this morning as -- catching the glimpses that we've been showing all morning long of the shuttle passing over Dallas in the moment that we presume everything went terribly wrong.

So the conditions were ripe and a lot of people were paying attention to this. In fact, a lot of people -- I heard on the radio driving in this morning -- a lot of people who had woken up just to be able to catch of glimpse of what was going on. So through this part of Texas, people, for the most part, pretty well aware of what was going to be going on this morning, as they wanted to catch a glimpse of the shuttle flying overhead.

KAGAN: All right, Ed Lavandera in Nacogdoches, Texas, thanks for bringing us that part of the story, appreciate it.

I want to bring our viewers attention to some things coming up later on in the day. First of all, a special that we're putting together for you here at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, a number of our colleagues and correspondents working on bringing you the latest and taking a look back at what has taken place today. That includes Miles, of course, who's been on the air with us all day long and our space expert. Wolf Blitzer making his way to Houston to the Johnson Space Center. That's where the families are headed. Judy Woodruff is in Washington and Lou Dobbs who happened to be in Florida, the right place. He will be joining us live from the Kennedy Space Center. Once again, that'll be at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 Pacific tonight.

Once again, we are standing by. Any moment now the latest update coming from NASA, 3:15 p.m. Eastern. You'll see it live right here on CNN. Right now we toss it right back over to Miles -- Miles. O'BRIEN: All right and that's obviously an important briefing, which we're going to see. And the minute we get it, we'll bring it to you live.

I want to tell you a little bit more about what we were seeing there. That picture we've been showing you over and over again, it occurs after a very dramatic return from space -- 17,500 miles an hour. Six or seven times faster than a speeding bullet is the speed of a shuttle in orbit. And the process -- and I don't want to get too deep into the world of Newtonian physics here, but basically, an orbit is a freefall. It's a freefall, which purposely balances the right amount of speed against the gravitational pull against the spacecraft. And it's just the sweet spot.

That speed of 17,500 miles an hour is just enough to keep the spacecraft in a more or less a constant orbit. And I won't get much deeper into the orbital mechanics than that for fear of losing you. But that is basically -- and what happens is -- and let's go to the animation from our friends of Analytical Graphics. If we could put that through the telestrator, I'd appreciate it.

What happens is the shuttle turns with its back end facing the direction it's going. It fires some rockets to slow it down. Then it does this pitch-over maneuver and begins its precipitous fall to earth. What you're seeing there as you look at these little thrusters, that's how it controls itself before it reaches the air of the atmosphere, which then allow the wings to take over in those controlled surfaces.

As it comes down and encounters the atmosphere, its first taste of the atmosphere, if you will, at 400,000 feet, it pitches up very nose high. And the idea here is to present these black tiles on the bottom side to the heat because those are the more hardy tiles and they are the ones that take the real weight of the matter as far as the heat dissipation. You're trading speed for heat. And beneath those tiles -- and there are some 20,000 tiles or thereabouts -- beneath them is the aluminum frame of a shuttle, which would melt with the 2,000 plus degrees Fahrenheit.

Now, if you notice, it does these steep pitching motions. Right before the breakup over Houston, it was taking a steep 57-degree left turn, just like this. And that -- those S-turns are part of the process of slowing it down, getting it ready for its final approach to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was in one of those steep left turns immediately prior to the breakup. It was a steep left turn.

Now, let's get Randy Avera with us, back on the loop.

Randy, I hope I -- correct me if I misspoke there. First of all, you're a former engineer or once an engineer, always an engineer, I suppose. You're an engineer. Did I say anything wrong? And can you elaborate at all on this process of reentry and how violent it is?

RANDY AVERA, FORMER NASA ENGINEER: Absolutely. And once again, this is true rocket science and it is a complex blend of many sciences. The tremendous momentum, the kinetic energy, of the mass times the velocity of an orbiter entering the earth's atmosphere, there are many thermodynamic and aerodynamic physics taking place there. The banking left and banking right is what's referred to as a Terminal Approach Energy Management phase of the reentry, TAEM. And what that is for is to, as you said, to provide the aerodynamic breaking to reduce the tremendous momentum and to ease into the atmosphere where there are complex...

O'BRIEN: Randy? I'll tell you what. I want to point out one thing here as we look at the bottom here. There is -- any one of these tiles -- if one of those tiles comes out, you've got -- it doesn't take much to cause a serious problem. Those tiles are, you know -- can be held in your hand. One tile in the wrong place can cause a real problem, can't it, being lost that is?

AVERA: That is correct. The tiles on the bottom of the black tiles and the gray leading edge surface tile, reinforced carbon carbon, the very high temperature leading edge of the wing and up on the nose cap are very critical to the performance and control of the vehicle.

There's another important point. The orbiter has been come being through the atmosphere, taking on a tremendous heat load. And if any lateral maneuvers, the banking to the left, the banking to the right, are conducted -- and this is part of the normal flight profile -- but what that does, it adds an instantaneous large heat load in addition to the heat that's already been put into the orbiter as a capacity heat load. And so if you have any flight control issues where you go laterally too far to the left, too far to the right, there's a limit at how -- what a banking rate can be safely conducted.

O'BRIEN: All right. But it's worth pointing out here, Randy, that at this juncture, the commander is not actually hand-flying the vehicle. This is flown on autopilot. The only time that the commander actually takes control is on the very final stages of approach, once it goes subsonic, about 50,000 feet, just before turning in for landing at the Kennedy Space Center. This is all controlled by computer.

AVERA: That is correct. And STS-3 was one of the very first and only landings where automatic landing was conducted. But the normal flight entry into the atmosphere is computer driven and controlled and of course there's the manual capability that both the left side and right seat, commander and pilot, have. And the 50,000-foot altitude is directly over the shuttle landing facility in Florida or in California. And then, a 270 degree turn to the left or right on the heading alignment circle is conducted to bring it on the final approach, which includes an approach, a pre-flair and flair and touchdown and roll-out.

O'BRIEN: And it's amazing how precipitous it is from that point, about six times steeper than a commercial airliner's approach. Seventeen, 18 degrees versus three degrees.

Let me ask you this -- these banking maneuvers. They are controlled by computers onboard the space shuttle. It is not required for the space shuttle to have communication with earth in order to accomplish that goal. In other words, it's kind of uploaded. The shuttle is an autonomous craft, correct?

AVERA: That is correct. And during reentry, the physics that's taking place -- the atmosphere is ionizing, stripping off electrons in and electromagnetic plasma is formed around the orbiter blocking transmission of, for example, UHF radio transmission. So it's typically the well-known blackout period, loss of signal, loss of communications. And as I was watching the reentry today, there was no acquisition of Com or navigation data.

O'BRIEN: Well -- and Randy, it's worth pointing out that typically with the satellite communication that the shuttle now has with the TDRAS, Tracking Data Relay Satellite, you don't even see that so much anymore or haven't seen those blackout periods like you had in the earlier days of the shuttle.

AVERA: Yes, you're referring to the on-orbit operations and the network of TDRAS satellites. By the way, TDRAS was the main cargo in the 51-L Challenger vehicle back in 1986. And this network is for on- orbit operations, communications from the orbiter to the earth and vice versa or from the orbiter to the space station or other orbiters. If you have, say, for example, two orbiters in orbit at the same time.

O'BRIEN: All right. And I just want to point out to our viewers, we've been telling you about a briefing from NASA from the shuttle program manager, Ron Dittemore, the chief flight director, Milt Heflin, out of Houston obviously -- there you go. There's a live signal from NASA TV, 2:20 Central, 3:20 Eastern Time. We're about two minutes away. We'll bring it to you live as it happens.

Randy, the issue of reentry and its dynamic pressure on the vehicle, is that as much stress as it encounters throughout the whole course of a flight or does that happen on launch?

AVERA: Well, the orbiter structure is limited by design to 650 pounds per square foot on the actual applied load of the atmosphere. That's for boost to orbit and reentry. But you also have the thermal effects of boost to orbit, which is considerable, and the very considerable heat loads during reentry. Both the aerodynamic pressure loads and the thermal loads have to be combined in analysis to determine what kind of stress the vehicle is experiencing. And plus, different payload configurations, it may be inside the payload bay having effect on the total mass and the flight response of the vehicle.

O'BRIEN: All right. We're getting into some fairly deep technical waters here. We hope we aren't losing people on all the technicalities of this. But as we go through this, I guess we'll all be schooled in a lot of this to some extent, just as we all became schooled in what an o-ring does and how -- when it is cold it doesn't perform as it should.

Once again, just tell us what's going on inside NASA right now, what the process is. We talked about preserving the data, all that kind of thing. What's going on right now at Mission Control? AVERA: Well, from my personal experience, being lead structures engineer for the orbiter for 13 years, we literally built those orbiters and moved them right to the rivet, jo bolt (ph) and high rod.

The people that are being called forward to do the investigative work, NASA is a fabulous leader in knowing how not to contaminate the investigation, to put people on the investigation who had no decision to launch, or, for example, no particular responsibilities necessarily in the flight control and reentry. And just to provide a check and balance to do a good, honest investigation. Those teams will be formed.

The NASA management teams at all centers are going to be involved with this. There are going to be changes in schedules and work routines. And people that never had an idea, as myself in 1986, that we would be doing a crash investigation will find themselves recalling back what they learned in school and college and other areas of scientific expertise.

O'BRIEN: All right. And we just saw the screen at NASA's Johnson Space Center indicate a 2:25 Central, 3:25 Eastern. So five more minutes before that briefing begins where we'll probably delve into some of the technical aspects of this.

Tell you what, Randy, if you can sit tight because I want you to be listening to this briefing for us and help us in case we need a little technical expertise.

I wanted to touch another base. Sitting right beside you is Mike Brooks, who is our law enforcement expert. And we haven't talked about this in quite a while, but I want to restate this because obviously viewers are joining us all the time. The first thing on a lot of people's minds and I'm getting a lot of e-mails with people with all kinds of suppositions on this is the issue of terrorism.

Mike Brooks, do us a favor, and knock that down one more time for us.

MIKE BROOKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Miles. Speaking with law enforcement officials and the FBI today, and the government has come out and said that there is no indication whatsoever that this tragedy is terrorism related or terrorism had anything at all to do with it. So I just want to make that perfectly clear. I'm glad you did that again, Miles, just to make sure that people just joining us -- the first thing they think about nowadays and especially because there was an Israeli astronaut on board the Columbia that this has all the indications it has nothing, nothing at all to do with terrorism.

O'BRIEN: All right. What are you hearing from law enforcement sources about the whole process of securing debris over this huge, huge area? A huge task. And another thing, which we haven't said in quite some time is that we want to give people a little caveat, a little warning on all this, right, Mike?

BROOKS: Absolutely, Miles. And as you said earlier, if anyone comes across any debris at all, any piece, no matter how small a piece, how large a piece, leave it alone. Call 911, let your local authorities know where it is, the location, what you see, but don't go up and touch it.

As you pointed out earlier, Miles, and it's very important for people to understand this, that there are a lot of toxic substances that could be on those pieces of debris, residue, those kind of things. And it's spread over a large territory. We're talking possibly Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, Miles.

And right now, about three hours ago, after the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- their headquarters put out an alert to all of their 56 field offices, putting all of their agents who are members of the Evidence Response Team on standby should they be needed to assist.

Now, keep in mind that Federal Emergency Management Agency is the lead agency for the debris recovery efforts. And they wanted -- they will coordinate with local, state and federal law enforcement -- federal, state and local law officials around that whole vicinity, as well as the military. We know already that there are some reserve units out there. We just saw Ed Lavandera's report from Texas where we do see some military personnel out there securing the scenes. So it's a coordinated effort with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the lead agency for these recovery efforts -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: You know, as we send it over to Nick Fuhrman who's sitting beside you there, Mike, not only is this potentially dangerous but wouldn't it be a terrible shame if somebody decided to take -- in a sick way, take a souvenir and perhaps that's the piece that could have solved the puzzle.

BROOKS: That's exactly right. You know, and please -- and I want to stress this to our viewers -- don't let your ghoulish curiosity get the best of you. Yes, this is a very important thing. These aren't souvenirs. This is evidence -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Nick Fuhrman, what are your points at this point about what we can anticipate hearing from NASA in the next hours, next few days?

FUHRMAN: Well, certainly you're going to hear what they believe the flight track was and so on. There are some practical issues they think have to be addressed and one is certainly what's going to happen to the astronauts who are on the International Space Station. You know there is a crew up there. There is probably not a good way to pick them all up at once using a shuttle at least not for the next year or so.

O'BRIEN: All right. But we should point out, Nick, they have a Soyuz capsule sitting there. It's essentially their escape pod. If they needed to leave they could, right?

FUHRMAN: Yes, and I think it's a whole issue of whether you want to abandon the space station, if you have the -- you know, are we going to make that kind of a turn at this point? It's really way too early to say. But I think it's something that needs to be addressed by NASA up front as to how we're going to deal with this over the next couple of years.

O'BRIEN: Yes, and the space station does change the dynamics significantly. We didn't have; obviously, an occupied space station in the days of Challenger and that may impact a lot of decision- making. As we look at -- let's look at a picture of debris here that we want to just show you. Nick, your thoughts on that, how that might impact, just a still image that we've gotten, just one of -- what are probably hundreds of pieces.

FUHRMAN: It's hard to say exactly what that is. It -- obviously, most people are going to be very interested to get to the crew compartment and the mid-deck and try and locate it. The biggest problem...

O'BRIEN: Could it survive intact, Nick?

FUHRMAN: It could, depending on exactly how it was breached, whether the breach occurred back in the airframe or around, you know, the wings of the shuttle or whether it occurred further forward where some of the com was lost initially. And so, it's way too early to know. Hopefully, we'll get some -- we'll be lucky and have some pictures of this as it occurred from some national security assets or some other assets that may have been watching it at the time.

O'BRIEN: Let's look at that picture one more time. One thing we didn't note for our viewers, you notice the red, white and blue ribbon, the red roses or carnations, I guess in that case, marking the place.

Mike Brooks, there's a phone number we're putting on there. And we've been telling the folks to call 911. NASA is putting out a number as well. I guess either will work, right?

BROOKS: I'd say it will work, yes. But since it is spread over such a large area, I think it's important that our viewers know this particular number and it's on our screen right now. It's area code 281-483-3388. This will take you right into the Johnson Space Flight Center.

Now, they only want to you call that number if you have seen or you have seen or you have found any debris that you feel is part of the shuttle, part of the Columbia. Please call that number. Again, that number is area code 281-483-3388 -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Let me, Mike, we are -- by the way, momentarily, we should be seeing this news conference to begin at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Shuttle program manager, Ron Dittemore, and chief flight director, Milt Heflin.

Let's take it back to Randy. Randy, we were talking earlier about this piece that struck the orbiter, the left wing as it rose to orbit. That particular piece might have been a piece of ice. It might have been a piece of foam from the external tank. It's a problem NASA was a pretty aware of and has been a problem in the past, hasn't it? AVERA: The launch environment, ignition of the main engines and then six seconds later ignition of the large, solid rocket boosters, it's about 125 decibels of noise and vibration as well. So anything that's really not secure at the pad could impact the orbiter.

There's also a ventury (ph) effect created by the large flow rate of the flame coming out of the solid rocket boosters and the main engines that tends to draw a vacuum down into the flame holes and into the flame trench. And that can actually transport loose objects down along the orbiter, down along the external tank and boosters. But I'll say again, the first step in making a wrong conclusion is to speculate and I understand that you asked that because I have also confirmed through telephone calls to the Kennedy Space Center that that has been a concern this week.

O'BRIEN: Yes, they were looking at it. And the people I talked to put it on the level of low-grade interest. Well documented, well researched as it always is, but the final thought was that it didn't cause any significant damage.

AVERA: NASA has an ice team, for example, that inspects during the countdown for safety to launch. The beeney (ph) cap, the little white cap on the very top of the external tank, is retracted just a couple of -- a minute or less prior to launch, somewhere in that very end of countdown. And there is a possibility of ice reforming.

I was at the Kennedy Space Center for this launch and the weather was just extraordinarily beautiful. But you're talking about hydrogen at 400 degrees below zero inside the external fuel tank, in the base of the external fuel tank, and liquid oxygen if the top of the fuel tank at minus 283 Fahrenheit. So it's a thermos bottle with tremendously cold temperatures. So the atmosphere around the day of launch, the time of temperature is a secondary question as -- in regard to the temperature inside the external tank.

O'BRIEN: All right. Randy Avera, stand by. We want you to listen to this briefing with us. Let's go to the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who is speaking right now. I'm not sure precisely where he is, maybe Austin. Let's listen in.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: I want to emphasize a note of caution to all those living in north and east Texas and into western Louisiana. If you spot shuttle debris, do not touch it, do not go near it. Shuttle materials could pose a grave risk to human health because of the toxic repellents used aboard the space shuttle. If you find debris, please call local authorities immediately to tell them of the location. This information also can be reported through a toll free number, 800-525-5555.

O'BRIEN: All right.

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