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Interview with Sen. Bill Nelson

Aired February 3, 2003 - 08:33   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Bill Nelson of Florida knows the dangers of space travel. He has logged more than two million miles in space. In 1986, he flew on the shuttle Columbia, returning just 10 days before the Challenger disaster. Nelson was a Congressman then. Now he sits on the Senate committee that oversees NASA, and Senator Bill Nelson joins us from Washington.
Good of you to join us this morning. Thanks for joining us, sir.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: Good morning, Paula.

ZAHN: Well, it didn't take long for some very pointed questions to be asked of NASA. Critics are saying that NASA ignored safety concerns in the program. We've had a number of former NASA engineers come in and say there were numerous problems in past missions, such as leaks, defects and fuel line cracks. Do you think those concerns were ignored by NASA?

NELSON: Not by the NASA family, Paula, because the NASA family will do everything to have that shuttle as safe as possible. But there has been an 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. We've been raising Cain up here about this for well over a year and a half, and the NASA Safety Advisory Panel just came out a few months ago and said the same thing.

Now, let me hasten to add, that I don't think that this accident was as a result of the lagging safety upgrades on the space shuttle, but, clearly, as we go back in to the flight regime again, we've got to do those safety upgrades.

ZAHN: Sir, how do you know that's not the case? Because you have people like Dr. Richard Blumberg who went before Congress in April and said that he had never been more worried about space shuttle safety. He said all of my instincts suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for current -- excuse me, for future danger.

NELSON: And I think he's right, and I think that's what a number of us have been saying for a couple of years, but it looks like the evidence on this is some kind of breach for the intense heat that was occurring at that time, and so that wouldn't be related to any one of these particular safety upgrades.

So we'll just have to wait and see, Paula.

ZAHN: So are you ruling out the possibility then -- and I know that the investigation is very new, and NASA investigators told us yesterday that this information is fluid, and even conclusions might change from day to day -- are you ruling out the possibility then that a piece of insulation foam hitting the left side of the Challenger is not in the end, or was that the beginning of the end?

NELSON: No, that's entirely a possibility. That could have knocked off some of the tiles on the left side, and that could of caused other tiles to knock off, and then that searing heat to penetrate the structure. That could have been, but we just don't know at this point. But other parts of that shuttle, it's so implicated, there are 1,500 parts on the shuttle when I flew; any one of which were to fail, that's it. That's the catastrophe for the mission.

ZAHN: How troubled are you by the front-page story in "The New York Times" today that suggests when experts on a NASA panel went to NASA and basically said, unless the budget was increased, you were going to have some catastrophic failures, and most of them were fired, and they are now saying in "The New York Times" today that the agency was trying to suppress their criticism. I know you said the blame rests not only with the Bush administration, but the Clinton administration as well. How bad does this make NASA look?

NELSON: Well, for the poor folks in NASA who had to grin and bear it and try to figure out how to handle all of these cuts -- for example, the budget for NASA today in real spending dollars is the same that it was 12 years ago. And, now, sadly, because of this tragedy, we are now going to see those safety upgrades done.

ZAHN: Do you see the shuttle program surviving?

NELSON: I do. I don't know if it will be a replacement orbiter for Columbia, if it will be the acceleration of development of technologies for a new space plane, but that would still be years and years away.

But I clearly see the space shuttle program continuing. That is our access to space for humans, and we've got a magnificent structure up there in space called the space station with our international partners. We want to utilize that to the fullest.

ZAHN: Even though you flew on the Columbia many, many years ago, I wonder if there was a part of you when you heard this dreadful news this weekend that thought that could have been me?

NELSON: Paula, I went through the same thing 17 years ago, having just -- our crew returned to Earth, and 10 days later, Challenger exploded. And your first thought is, oh, please, Lord, let them have some means of escape, and everything that we're seeing, the crew compartment must of kept intact, although you just hope and pray that it was breached and that those suits were breached, so that there would be instant decompression and they would have lost consciousness immediately.

ZAHN: Hate to end it on that sad note, but we need to move on.

Senator Bill Nelson, thank you, again, for spending a little time with us this morning.

NELSON: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: Good luck to you.


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