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CNN CROSSFIRE

Should Space Shuttle Mission Have Been Aborted At Launch?

Aired February 3, 2003 - 19:00   ET

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

ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE.
On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: After the shock and the grief, questions that won't go away. Was the shuttle shortchanged?

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: There has been an ignoring and a starving of NASA for funds by the administration and this isn't a partisan comment.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: But I wouldn't immediately jump to the conclusion that we have to cut back on safety.

ANNOUNCER: And the most urgent question of all: what went wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want to get every last shred of evidence.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE.

Live from the George Washington University, James Carville and Robert Novak.

JAMES CARVILLE, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE on a night that's more somber than usual because of the space shuttle disaster.

Tonight we'll be joined by former astronaut Norm Thagard as well as by a NASA critic and ask him what went wrong and when in the months and minutes and days and minutes before Columbia disaster.

Also, we're going to talk politics. After all, President Bush went ahead and sent his budget deficit and all up to Capitol Hill today. So let's start with the best political briefing in television, the "CROSSFIRE Political Alert."

It's a safe bet that Sean O'Keefe isn't used to getting a lot of face time with President George W. Bush. O'Keefe is NASA's administrator, the top boss. He was summoned to the White House today to brief the president on the shuttle disaster. This afternoon he was on Capitol Hill briefing lawmakers. A couple hours ago, NASA investigators said they're assuming that the shuttle's external fuel tank, which shed a piece of foam shortly after takeoff ,is the root cause of the accident.

ROBERT NOVAK, CNN CO-HOST: Do you think -- do you think shedding the piece of tile was -- should have alerted them? CARVILLE: Does what now?

NOVAK: Should have alerted them?

CARVILLE: We'll have these people and ask about them. A piece of foam shouldn't cause that much damage, should it? I mean, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) foam mattress.

NOVAK: NASA can expect plenty of criticism in the wake of the Columbia disaster, but the space agency was under fire even before the space shuttle tragedy. President Bush's own budget, obviously written in advance of Saturday's events says -- quote -- "past management of shuttle investments suffered from unclear planning and cost overruns" -- endquote. Calls on NASA to reform its management techniques.

As for funding, the budget calls for a rise of 31 percent in space funding to 100 -- to $15.5 billion for the next year, including a small boost for the space shuttle to just under $4 billion. Question is, will more money than that be needed to get the space program back on track?

CARVILLE: Yes, I don't know. I mean, that's one of the things to talk about tonight. A lot of people saying why do we have people going up in space when we can send robots. I don't know. But they're are a lot of questions, I guarantee you, will be asked and hopefully some of them will get answered.

President Bush sent his $2 trillion -- $200 billion budget up to Capitol Hill today. The budget requests runs five volumes and is thick enough to make even the yellow phone book look tiny. Remember when President Lincoln brought us a balanced budget? Forget it. The Bush budget predicts a record-setting $304 billion deficit next year. And doesn't even take into account the cost of a possible war with Iraq, which may run at least $60 billion more.

Here is a bet for you, Bob. If the projected deficit comes in lower, I'll give the Republican National Committee 100 bucks for every billion it's under.

Bob, will you give the Democratic National Committee $50 for every billion it's over? If you wouldn't want to take that bet, just e-mail at crossfire.com

NOVAK: I don't make that kind of money.

CARVILLE: You're an honest man.

NOVAK: I'll tell you this. The deficit is something that the Democrats usually say didn't matter. Democrats were right. It really is not important an important statistic and you know it isn't.

CARVILLE: I called President Clinton President Lincoln, well that's OK. We'll just let it go.

NOVAK: That's all right. You thought of him because he freed you. Anyway, Secretary of State Colin Powell is seeing as the resident dove nestled among the Bush administration's war hawks. But he goes to the United Nations Wednesday to argue that the world organization's mandates are being defied by Saddam Hussein.

Powell today sifted through intelligence that it will use to make his case, including intercepted conversations with Iraqi officials and photos of mobile biological weapons.

In a "Wall Street Journal" article today, the Secretary of State said he will not reveal a smoking gun on Wednesday, but he added that he will show flagrant Iraqi obstruction of U.N. weapons inspectors. Powell insisted the U.S. still seeks peaceful disarmament but he added we will not shrink from war if necessary.

CARVILLE: You know, I'm going listen. I think we all ought to -- we owe it to listen to what he has to say. But the question is not if we went to war when everybody was in violation of a U.N. resolution, we'd never stop fighting wars. And I just hope that somehow or another there's a way to reconcile this thing short of -- short of fighting a war.

NOVAK: I'd still like to see that smoking gun. I really would.

CARVILLE: You're more of a smoking gun -- you're a bigger dove than me, Bob.

One of the cantankerous Democrat -- one of the most cantankerous Democrats Texas has ever known has gone to that big round up in the sky; 82-year-old Maury Maverick Jr. was a lawyer, a columnist and a Texas state lawmaker. He wrote a book called "Texas Iconoclast" in 1997 describing some of this adventures. Maverick helped to beat some idiots building a Texas legislate that would have made being a communist a death penalty offense. Another time, he defended a black boxer's right to fight white opponents and help desegregate the fight game. Texas is a better place because of Maury Maverick. He'll be missed.

NOVAK: I knew Maury. He was an old-fashioned Texas Populist. Ran for the U.S. Senate in 1961, replaced Lyndon Johnson. He was defeated by a conservative Republican, John Tower. Sign of the times.

CARVILLE: His great grandfather was -- the Maverick who termed the Maverick came from. He was a guy that -- let's just say this, he marched to the beat of his own drummer.

NOVAK: Sure did.

Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts liberal trying to win next year's South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, has made a big political decision. He will ignore the NAACP's economic boycott of South Carolina because it flies the Confederate battle flag on the state house grounds. Kerry said -- quote -- "I can't run for president of the United States and change this country and have a positive impact on the issue of race and the needs of blacks if I can't campaign effectively" -- endquote. Kerry joins all the other white presidential candidates in ignoring the boycott except for one, Senator John Edwards of South Carolina, the only southerner in the race.

Now get this. Edwards honors the boycott by campaigning in South Carolina, but staying in private homes instead of hotels. That's a real profile in courage isn't it, James?

CARVILLE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) In Senator Edwards' defense, I think the guy's trying to campaign and trying to observe the boycott. It doesn't seem like it's that big a deal.

I do think that the real issue is that the flag is horrendously offensive to any number of South Carolinians and they ought to get rid of the thing. I do agree we have to campaign and you can't...

NOVAK: That's stupid. Saying, Gee, I'm -- I'm accepting the boycott. Is he going to pass?

CARVILLE: They want you to boycott the hotels. If you go see your sister-in-law in South Carolina, you're not busting a boycott, Bob.

CARVILLE: All right. You failed that one.

Next, we'll ask a couple of Congressmen if human space flight is possible on a shoestring budget.

Later, did something on Columbia's way into space cause the disaster coming home? We'll turn loose one of NASA's big critics and let him face off with a former astronaut.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARVILLE: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Until Saturday morning, most of us never dreamed the United States space program is headed for another tragedy. But "The New York Times," "L.A. Times," "Washington Post" among others have run long stories showing that the year's experts had been sounding alarms that budget cuts were compromising safety and no one listened.

Here to talk about whether the space shuttle has been short- changed is Virginia Democratic Congressman James Moran and California Republican Congressman David Dreier is who's chairman of the House Rules Committee.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Congressman Moran, I'd like you to listen with the rest of us to the comments on these funding of the space program by a friend of the space program, a former -- a man who as a Congressman, flew as an astronaut, is now a U.S. senator. I'm talking about Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida. Let's listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: There has been ignoring and a starving of NASA for funds by the administration. And this isn't a partisan comment. It goes back to the previous administration. They have delayed, as a result of that, the safety upgrades to the space shuttle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: That is a very stern indictment, is it not?

REP. JAMES MORAN (D), VIRGINIA: I don't know that I would call it an indictment. The Clinton administration was fiscally responsible. So they wanted to constrain domestic spending.

But I would agree with you that I think the space flight program generally should be better funded, should be better funded in the budget that the president submitted today. This budget is $990 million below the 2002 current services level for the space flight program.

Now there's a little increase for space shuttle within that amount. But I do think it is underfunded when you consider all the technological benefits we've gotten, particularly in the area of medicine.

NOVAK: Do you think, and I hope certainly, Congress will look at this, do you think you tie this disaster to the underfunding?

MORAN: No, no. I think that would be irresponsible to do so. This is one of those things that happened, that occurred on takeoff. And, you know, a certain amount of accidents are going to happen unfortunately. And I don't think this is anybody's fault.

NOVAK: You said it happened...

MORAN: On takeoff. I think that the damage probably occurred in takeoff with the tile and then had it hit the friction coming into the atmosphere, it blew up. I don't think anybody could have necessarily prevented it, but I'd like to see more money invested.

CARVILLE: Congressman Dreier, as I understand this, most people agree that space exploration is necessary, is good, we get something back for the money we spend there. But a lot of people and I suspect a lot more this morning, I mean today than there were before saying, Why are we sending people up there? We can send robots up there and we don't have to endanger human life like this. What's your reaction?

REP. DAVID DREIER (R), CALIFORNIA: James, we were talking before we came out about this. Obviously, you know, at this juncture, our prayers go out to the families and I know Jim joins me in that. This is a sad time. We're in mourning. Some of us are going down to the memorial service in Houston tomorrow.

But I just -- I just spoke with a friend of mine, Dr. Charles Alatchi (ph), who is the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, an area that I represent. And the prospect of pursuing this program without it being manned is something that is really frightening. I'll tell you why.

If you look at this goal that many of us have, in the next couple of decades we hope to place a man on Mars. A lot of the work will be done with robotics. And the Mars programs that emanate from the Jet Propulsion Lab are going to be done with robotics.

But he was talking to me about things like the prospect of drilling on the planet for water. And that is going to take a human being to do that. We don't the robotics to do it.

So at the same time, if you think about what we as a society have been -- a couple of weeks ago we marked the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's request to Congress for support for the Lewis and Clark expedition. We are known as pioneers. And the idea of simply pursuing space with out a human component is something that I don't really want to do. In fact, I want to have the chance to go to Mars. Some of my constituents think I've already come from there, but the fact is...

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: I want to come back here to, look, again, I don't doubt -- I'm not arguing -- I'm saying -- I'm on the fence. (UNINTELLIGIBLE). But in your friend at the Jet Propulsion described it as frightening, hell, a lot of people thought it was frightening watching that thing break up in there with those people on there. A lot of people who thought that Challenger thing who can ever forget...

DREIER: But, James, let me talk about another guy whose predecessor, Dr. Ed Stone said to me, when we in December of 1999, I sat with him up at JPL when we were having trouble with the Mars program there and he said the following: "If we don't take risks, we will never learn anything." And that's why we need to continue to, as Bob said so well...

CARVILLE: I don't think the -- point is if we have to fight a war, if it is like the Japanese and the Germans, we understand that. But does somebody have to die so we can drill a hole in Mars or not? I mean it just don't seem to me to be as big -- it seems like it's a risk benefit.

DREIER: James, it is a fair question for you to raise.

NOVAK: Congressman?

(CROSSTALK)

MORAN: I think there's another aspect of this, too. If it is all done with robotics, the motivation, the inspiration for young people to get into the sciences, particularly into aeronautics and the kind of technology that deals with exploration of space is not there.

This is an exciting thing. For every astronaut that -- you have thousands who pursue it, to dream of it. We heard about Dave Brown that grew up in Arlington, Virginia, that's what he thought about all his life. You're not going to have that if it is all mechanized. NOVAK: Congressman, let me ask you one question before we take a break and that is everybody thinks that you throw money at something, you solve a problem. And I'm going to give you -- somebody who is not exactly an objective observer, that's the budget director, see what he had to say about it today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITCH DANIELS, DIR. OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET: The president is committed to moving forward in space. He's made that plain. His budget makes that plain. And, you know, if there's a lesson in the last couple days, it's, I suppose, another sad example that more money alone can't always avoid very sad setbacks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: From what you said, Congressman, you would agree with that, wouldn't you?

MORAN: Oh, I would. But I think that research and development generally is underfunded in this budget and it has consistently been underfunded.

I think when you look at the benefits in the private sector, in the -- in terms of our educational process, it is -- you know, we're short-changing it. We're short-changing the National Institute's of Health Budget. But I would generally agree with that he said.

NOVAK: OK. We're going to have to take a break. And in a minute, we'll consider the other 99 percent of President Bush's budget.

And later, the big question, who is to blame for the Columbia disaster? We'll ask a former astronaut and a veteran of the commission that investigated the Challenger explosion.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARVILLE: President Bush's big fat new budget and bigger, fatter still growing deficit was delivered to Capitol Hill today.

We're talking money matters with David Dreier who is chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Virginia Democratic congressman and my own congressman, James Moran.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Congressman Moran, I hear all kinds of whining from your side of the aisle about the budget cuts and this budget. You know, there are no budget cuts. This is an increase of about 4 percent, which is just about the same increase in the household spending of Americans. Why do you call it a budget cut if it is an increase of 4 percent?

REP. JAMES MORAN (D), VIRGINIA: There are budget cuts across the board, Bob. The fact is that when you factor in inflation and you factor in the increased spending in defense and the war in Iraq, which isn't even included in this budget, there is going to be substantial cuts taken to domestic discretionary spending. Particularly those areas that the president took so much credit for, they leave no child behind act takes a major cut below the authorization level. Yes, it's true.

NOVAK: Just a minute. There is -- when you're speaking about a cut, you mean a cut below the increase that you want. There is not any area where there is less spending where there is this year than last.

MORAN: I'm talking -- I'm talking -- I didn't realize that was an applause line. I'm talking about the...

NOVAK: Not for you.

MORAN: ... below the current services level. What it takes to maintain the current level of spending today. There is increases in any number of other areas.

NOVAK: Can't we get this straight? When you...

MORAN: Some programs are truly cut. There is cuts in housing.

NOVAK: Not below the level of the previous year.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Let me show you what a great budget expert -- an excellent prudent man set about the deficits last January when he was addressing the Congress of the United States. Can we put that up there when he was speaking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The budget will run a deficit that will be small and short-term.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARVILLE: The deficit -- small and short term. Right now, according to him -- it is 300 -- his definition of small is $304 billion. This is a bet I offered to make Bob, I'll make it with you. Every billion dollars under $304 billion, I'll give the Republican National Committee $100. If every billion dollars over 304 you give the DNC $50.

REP. DAVID DREIER (R-CA), CHAIRMAN OF HOUSE RULES COMMITTEE: There are limits on the contribution you can give to the RNC, James.

CARVILLE: I'll be glad to -- I'll tell you what I do, I'll give it to your campaign account.

DREIER: There are limits on that, too.

CARVILLE: Small. DREIER: Let me just...

CARVILLE: This man -- why would we believe anything this man had to say?

DREIER: Because we have gone through...

CARVILLE: Anything? Gone through what?

DREIER: James, we've gone through the three criteria set forward. War, recession, and national emergency.

CARVILLE: He said it in -- in January of 2002. I don't know how to tell you, that, that's after September 11. He said they would be small.

Why he did lie to us?

DREIER: The economic -- that's...

CARVILLE: Why?

DREIER: James, the economic recovery has not been as strong as we would like. I will admit that. That's why this budget that the president has put forward is designed to encourage economic growth. Everyone alike, Democrats, Republicans, independents, agrees that the reason that we have seen this slowing down in the flow of revenues to the Federal Treasury is we have not gotten the economy growing. The economy is not growing because of we spent $100 billion in the wake of September 11. We still see slow economic -- we don't see economic growth strong enough to sustain us and it is a national emergency.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: He says the economy is fine. The problem is the economy is fine. They all say it is great.

NOVAK: I think Paul...

MORAN: The real reason we don't see economic expansion is the lack of confidence in the direction of the -- we're not seeing the investment and this economic -- supposed economic growth stimulus, only about 10 percent of it is really spent this year, David. As you know, most of it is in the dividend taxation which occurred years from now. And doesn't go to people who need the money.

NOVAK: Who called that a stimulus?

MORAN: What?

NOVAK: Who called that a stimulus?

MORAN: President Bush.

NOVAK: No, no, no, he didn't.

MORAN: He called it economic -- it is not intended to be a stimulus.

NOVAK: That's right. It is a growth incentive.

DREIER: The old class warfare stuff has clearly got to be thrown out the window. We're looking at long-term economic growth.

MORAN: Because it benefits you, because you are (UNINTELLIGIBLE) class. You want us to describe it as it is.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: All right. One at a time! one at a time!

DREIER: Under this budget, a family of four earning $40,000 will see their tax liability drop from $1,078 to $45. If you look at the fact that 92 million Americans, 92 million Americans will on average see a cut of $1,078 in their tax liability. You know this class warfare, us versus then just doesn't fall.

CARVILLE: Let me interrupt you. That is. You're a good guy. You know, you know you're misleading people because if Bill Gates is worth $4 billion and I'm worth nothing, that's like saying the average person is worth $2 billion. You are using -- you are using -- you do that, everybody knows you're a better man that that to use that.

DREIER: I will admit to you that we should cut taxes for people who are out there creating jobs, establishing small businesses and what we need to do...

CARVILLE: Say that fine, but don't use average in that.

DREIER: We're doing both is my point. I think that cutting the top rate in capital gains to encourage people to get into the market will provide an immediate incentive to that. And you need to support...

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Wait a minute. Let him talk.

DREIER: I think what we need to do is cut the top rate on capital gains for people who invest tomorrow in this measure.

MORAN: David, 10 percent of the American people owe 90 percent of the stock in this country. The fact is that...

DREIER: And over half the Americans are members of the...

MORAN: A proposed tax cut, three-quarters of it is going to the wealthiest, the top 5 percent of taxpayers. That's the -- you keep saying class warfare, but that's the reality. That's not going to the middle class it is not going to working class. It is not going to people who need it. It is not being spent this year.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Can I ask you a question?

MORAN: Yes.

NOVAK: Do you know, Congressman Moran, that of people who are in the top 25 percent of income, that they pay a higher percentage of the taxes under the president's plan than they did before? Did you know that?

MORAN: They -- the fact is they get a larger tax cut when you combine the 2001 tax and this tax cut than they pay in percentage of taxes today.

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: I like this thing of -- if you talk about the a government policy, to say class warfare, I'm not an editorial writer, I'm not going to be intimidated. If the talk about the consequences of government policy is every bit as fair as it gets. Now they're going expand our rates. Do you know how many people max out their IRA? Four percent.

DREIER: We want more people to max out. That's our goal. We want more people to do that.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Congressman, I want to ask you another question do you realize if there was not a single tax cut, we with still be in deficit thanks to the recession that started under Clinton? Do you realize that?

MORAN: Baloney. Do you realize that we're going to use up $2.2 trillion of the social security and Medicare trust fund. And we're going to do all of it, all of the trust fund surplus that is available, we're going to spend in order to pay for this tax cut. David talks about the war. It is not the war is what's creating the deficit. We've had a $7 trillion...

(CROSSTALK)

MORAN: We had $5.6 trillion surplus at the end the Clinton administration. We have a $2.1 trillion deficit projected now. We're going to have a $5 trillion public debt in 2008 when the Social Security roll (ph) starts doubling with the baby boom generation.

NOVAK: Let's let David Dreier answer.

DREIER: What we need to do is...

(APPLAUSE)

MORAN: Now those are the facts.

DREIER: I went through the facts as to what this tax cut will do. Economic growth is what we need. We can agree on the fact that we need to go the economy growing. What is the best way to do it? You don't increase taxes.

You encourage savings, investment and productivity. And be very responsible. And I'll tell you, this budget is just that. It is one which is going to in fact create a climate where we will be able to see things turn around.

MORAN: That's what you said in 2001. And you know what, it's gotten worse.

DREIER: And what we've got to do is we...

NOVAK: You said you don't want to increase taxes.

(CROSSTALK)

MORAN: That's right.

NOVAK: Just a minute, James. You would roll back the tax cut, that's a tax increase, isn't it?

MORAN: No it is not a tax increase.

NOVAK: How is that?

CARVILLE: Why would I believe anything that President Bush said about the economy? He's lost three (ph) million jobs. I'll say it three times. I'll say it five times if I want to, because he doesn't know what's talking about. He said they were going to be small...

(CROSSTALK)

DREIER: You just don't like the president, James.

CARVILLE: I like him fine. He's a nice man. He just doesn't know anything about the economy. He's leading this country down the road to fiscal ruin. I like him a lot.

(APPLAUSE)

DREIER: We'll put you in the undersided (ph) column on that one, James.

CARVILLE: When I see him...

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: All right. Congressman James Moran, thank you very much.

There are new developments in the Space Shuttle Columbia investigation. Our own Connie Chung will have the latest next in a CNN NEWS ALERT. And then an author who says NASA is to blame for killing the Challenger astronauts. What does he think about the Columbia astronauts?

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS ALERT)

NOVAK: One of our viewers thinks space exploration is a huge waste of money. We'll let him fire back in a little bit. But next, a former astronaut steps into the CROSSFIRE with a critic. He says they should have aborted Columbia's mission before it was too late.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. We're coming to you from the George Washington University in Foggy Bottom, D.C.

NASA says its readying its analysis from scratch to find the cause of the Shuttle Columbia disaster. It is now making the assumption that the external fuel tank may be to blame. All of us knew space travel was hazardous, but did NASA regard it as too routine? And just who is really to blame for the Columbia disaster?

In the CROSSFIRE now, former astronaut and CNN space analyst Norm Thagard. He joins us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Here at George Washington is John Macidull, staff member of the Challenger Presidential Commission. And author of a new book, "Challenger's Shadow" -- James.

(APPLAUSE)

CARVILLE: John, in this book, "Challenger's Shadow," you get pretty far out there about the Challenger. Let me put up and read a quote from the book. And then I want to ask you about this one.

"Management was responsible for the death of those seven Challenger astronauts and the destruction of all the equipment involved blindly, without cause, sending everything aloft without regard to known system failures. And so they killed people."

OK. That's pretty big bomb to throw.

JOHN MACIDULL, CHALLENGER PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION MEMBER: Well that's my opinion.

CARVILLE: That's the opinion. In your opinion now, what are the chances that we're going to have a thorough investigation, an honest investigation, and find out -- everything that I read in the paper about this admiral (ph) they appointed, he seems like a good man. Should we be able to trust him? That's what we want to do.

MACIDULL: Well I don't think NASA should be involved in investigating themselves and appointing a commission or organization under their guise, if you will. I don't think is good. I think the National Transportation Safety Board has the charter and the qualification and the people and the expertise and the laboratories to be able to do this. They've been investigating aircraft accidents for almost 30 years, and I think they're an independent government agency by law. They're separate from all the other government agencies.

NOVAK: So this commission that the president named you think is not a good idea, the people he's named to it.

MACIDULL: I don't think NASA should be involved in any aspect in investigating themselves.

NOVAK: What do you think of that, Mr. Thagard?

NORM THAGARD, FMR. ASTRONAUT: Well I would agree that there needs to be an independent investigation. And, in fact, I thought that was going to occur. But NASA is also obviously going investigate it because the agency wants to find out what went wrong and ensure that it never happens again.

NOVAK: You know, there has been so much written and said in the last 48 hours about the space program that I didn't know about. Maybe James knew about it. I sure didn't know all this criticism. Let me just read to you from the current issue of "TIME" magazine what Greg Easterbrook said.

He said, "For 20 years, the American space program has been wedded to a space-shuttle system that is too expensive, too risky, too big for most of the ways it is used, with budgets that suck up funds that could be invested in a modern system that would make space flight cheaper and safer." What do you think of that, Mr. Thagard?

THAGARD: I think that the space shuttle at the time it was designed was a good idea. It obviously is expensive to operate. And yet it does a job that no vehicle before it could do, especially in the area of getting heavy objects up into space and back again. So it is easy to say now that we should do something differently, but at the time all of this started, it was the appropriate thing to do.

CARVILLE: Let me ask both of you, we keep hearing that it was a piece of foam that fell off. And in my everyday experience, a piece of foam couldn't damage a -- you know if I was on a Boeing 747 and got hit with a piece of foam I wouldn't worry about it too much. I want to go to you first, Mr. Thagard, and then let you go.

Explain to us what this is all about. Is this just something people are making up or what?

THAGARD: I've seen that foam on the -- I flew five flights, and on three of them I was up on the flight deck. And you always see a lot of this white insulation material come down at times. It almost looks like a snowstorm, and it might smear the wind screen when it hits it. It is just hard to imagine that soft material like that could do serious damage.

CARVILLE: So can you add to that? I mean, just as an everyday guy, I was going to say, I worry about things, you know, like a bird getting caught in the engine, you know what I mean? Or getting hit by another plane or something. But I never worried about no damn foam hitting us.

MACIDULL: Well if there was moisture around and it was below freezing then it would be heavier than light foam. NOVAK: Mr. Macidull, do you have any apprehensions or any thoughts that perhaps this mission should have been aborted when they saw something coming off the spacecraft on launch?

MACIDULL: Yes, I think they should have done something to abort it. I can't imagine an airline pilot, for example, rolling down the runway and the tower comes up and says, hey this big piece just fell off your airplane and him not aborting the flight. It was a...

CARVILLE: Go ahead, respond. Yes, sir.

THAGARD: Yes, I'd like to chime in. First of all, aborts of themselves are not normal procedures. And they're something that you would be really wary of doing even if you thought you really needed to. As I understand it, this video showing this foam hitting the shuttle really wasn't seen immediately, so by the time it was discovered the vehicle was already in orbit.

NOVAK: You couldn't have aborted the flight, you say? It was impossible?

THAGARD: No. You have the opportunity to abort the flight, but you know that's not been done before. That in itself is a risky procedure. We practice it a lot in the simulators. Unless I were sure absolutely that I were going to have a thermal problem on entry, my preference would be to go to orbit rather than do one of these aborts that so far has never been done.

NOVAK: You disagree with that, Mr. Macidull?

MACIDULL: I really don't know enough to comment. If they could not have aborted -- in the first place, the camera showed something coming off the aircraft. If their loop of information precluded them discussing it or telling the flight crew that something big came off the aircraft, then there might be a problem there. But if they had been told, there was time to abort before they got into space.

CARVILLE: Let me go -- and again, I read that if these tiles -- and this is speculative -- am I correct on this, that these tiles protect the shuttle from the heat as it re-enters the atmosphere, is the suspected cause in this. Am I correct in saying that, sir?

THAGARD: There is clearly some loss of the thermal protection, and that thermal protection is primarily the tiles. There are also some materials on the nose and the leading edge. But, yes, those basically need to stay largely in tact.

CARVILLE: And if those were not, you can't do anything about it in space? If they were missing, there is no way that you could repair it once you were up there? Am I correct in that, sir?

THAGARD: You are correct, and that was looked at early in the space program and discarded because it proved to be impractical.

NOVAK: OK. We're going to have to take a break. And in a minute, we'll ask -- when we come back, one of our members of our studio audience wants to ask if it is time to retire the space shuttle fleet.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARVILLE: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. We're talking about what may have gone wrong on the ground before things went so terribly wrong in the sky for the Space Shuttle Columbia. In Houston, is former astronaut and CNN space analyst Norm Thagard. And with us here is John Macidull of the Challenger Presidential Commission.

OK. We got an audience question out there? All right.

ALLISON: Hi. My name is Allison (ph) and I'm from Atlanta. I was just wondering, in "The New York Times" today it stated that about five experts were fired after stating that a few of the NASA shuttles should have been retired. And then I also heard reports that Columbia was -- NASA was considering retiring Columbia in 2001. Could it be that NASA is trying to get the finger pointed at the federal government about the funding instead of the finger being pointed at them?

CARVILLE: That is. I saw that same story. And I thought it was interesting and potentially frightening. Do you know anything about this, about people getting fired for disagreeing with NASA or sounding an alarm?

NOVAK: Go ahead, Mr. Thagard.

THAGARD: Yes. Actually, Ron Dittemore commented about that today. It didn't sound like a firing to me. The person they were talking about, the head of it, had been there for, I think, 15 years. And as folks are on a panel for a while, the currency of their expertise declines.

It sounded like NASA simply wanted to bring new blood on the panel. In any event, they awarded him with their highest medal, which doesn't sound look a firing.

NOVAK: I interviewed Sean O'Keefe, NASA administrator, on a program that ran on January 25 on CNN. And I asked him, you know people used to talk about space tourist (UNINTELLIGIBLE), going up into space. I said, when was that going to happen? And let's listen to his anser.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: It might be just around the corner. How do you accomplish the task of getting anywhere more expeditiously and do it in a way that lends itself to us, mere mortals, as opposed to the extraordinary astronauts who are trained for extended periods of time for each and every mission.

NOVAK: Can you give a date?

O'KEEFE: The next decade I think is certainly a possibility that is worth aspiring to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Mr. Macidull, from what you know, do you think that's realistic, next decade of space travel by the people in this audience?

MACIDULL: I think it is realistic, yes. I was frankly surprised about this accident. I thought NASA, after the Challenger accident, really got their act together and they implemented more than what was recommended for them to do by the presidential commission. And I think 10 years is not outside the...

NOVAK: What you to think, Mr. Thagard? Do you think that is realistic?

THAGARD: I think it is realistic. In fact, space tourism already has occurred. Dennis Tito (ph) and Mark Shuttleworth (ph), who flew up on a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) rocket to the international space station, were certainly space tourists. Company Space Adventures here in the United States already negotiates those kinds of flights. So the space tourism age is already on us.

CARVILLE: Well let's go to tourism (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and ask somebody from our audience if they've got another question for our distinguished guests here tonight. Go ahead. Tell us your name and where you're from.

JASON WALTERS: Hi there. I'm Jason Walters (ph) from Kernersville, North Carolina. And my question is, what if any parts of the space program can be given to private companies to increase the quality of the equipment and the missions?

CARVILLE: Go ahead, Mr. Thagard.

THAGARD: Sure. That's tough. This has been looked at before, the privatization of space. But it is a very, very expensive enterprise. And the companies that see business future in space are already involved in it. You hope as time goes along and the expense of operations comes down that more and more of that happens, but it is still a very, very expensive thing to do.

NOVAK: Mr. Macidull, thank you very much. Mr. Thagard, thank you. We appreciate you being here. And we'll go on with the next segment after these messages.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Time now for "Fireback." The first e-mail is from Wally Booker of good old Chicago, Illinois. And Wally's e-mail typifies just many, many that we receive. He writes, "No one believed that space travel was risk free. These astronauts accepted those risks and lived their dreams." I think that's what America thinks about this.

CARVILLE: Could be. OK. What do we have here? "The space shuttle is a symbol of our national pride. It's a symbol of our quest to explore the unknown and our dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. As Americans, we share in this pride. And when disaster strikes we also share in the grief." Connie DiJohnson of Clarksville, Tennessee.

Very eloquent, Connie. She ought to get a job as a speech writer or something.

NOVAK: Well, see the thing that many ordinary Americans -- you may not appreciate this -- are very eloquent people.

CARVILLE: Why are you attacking me? I said something nice about the lady and you're jumping all over me.

NOVAK: Well they don't all have to be speechwriters.

CARVILLE: Well I just said it was a great -- I said the woman was eloquent.

NOVAK: Now we did, just to show you there is -- we have -- this is the only e-mail like this we found. But there is one stinker in every group. And it's Lars Klaua from Pasadena, California and Mr. Dreier's congressional district. He said, "This space boondoggle is a giant waste of time, money and energy. We don't need any more rockets blasting off into space."

And I'll bet you he was the kind of guy who would have been against the combustion engine as well.

CARVILLE: I don't know why we got to politicize the damn space shuttle blowing up. And if somebody's got an opinion, please, write in. I'm not going to...

NOVAK: I can criticize him if I want to.

CARVILLE: You can (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but -- "Perhaps the challenges of space will always find the Achilles Heel of whatever quality of craft we send into the darkness. But as one of the greatest presidents of the century pleaded, "We chose this not because it was easy, but because it's difficult." Ryan McDonald, Markham Ontario, Canada.

NOVAK: Who said that?

CARVILLE: John F. Kennedy said that.

NOVAK: That's right. I'm glad you knew that.

CARVILLE: But I'd like to say our friends from Canada who are very special...

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: All right. A question from the audience.

JENNIFER GASTIANO: This comment actually is directed to Mr. Carville.

NOVAK: Your name.

GASTIANO: My name is Jennifer Gastiano (ph) and I'm from New York City.

CARVILLE: All right. How are you doing, Jennifer?

GASTIANO: Good. How are you?

CARVILLE: Nice to see you.

GASTIANO: When I was 13 years old, I went to space camp in Florida at Kennedy Center with hundreds of children my age looking to continue in space exploration, possibly becoming astronauts one day. And the most profound thing I remember was going to the Kennedy Space Center and seeing next to Gus Grissom's suit a quote that he said before he died in the Apollo 1 mission, that the conquest of space was worth the risk of life. So...

CARVILLE: Obviously he believed it because he risked his life and lost his life in the conquest of space. When I was a kid in high school we'd watch John Glenn and Alan Shepherd go up. I'm not against it. But what I think is that there are things that you can do to reduce human error and reduce accidents. Just because -- I don't think it is necessary that people die. They might have dead because (UNINTELLIGIBLE) negligence and we're not doing something right, well investigate it and change it.

NOVAK: Would you go into space now?

GASTIANO: Absolutely.

NOVAK: Good for you. Terrific. Next question.

MATT RUTHERFORD: Hi. I'm Matt Rutherford from Clinton (ph), Virginia. And with the soaring federal budget deficits of today, would it not behoove the federal government to restrict NASA from carrying out missions that, you know, are for largely ceremonial purposes or, you know, just experiments upon animals to ones that just, you know, further -- better serve the interest of mankind?

NOVAK: The government is too big and there is plenty of places it could be cut. I'd cut it across the board.

CARVILLE: All right. From the left, I'm James Carville. Goodnight for CROSSFIRE and thank you for your questions.

NOVAK: From the right I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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