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Shuttle Columbia Disaster in Space

February 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: More now on the shuttle investigation from Kathy Sawyer, a science and technology writer for the Washington Post and Col. Dick Covey, a former NASA astronaut and a four-time space shuttle crew member. Kathy, first, as everybody says, it is early in the investigation, but there’s no question at the moment where the major attention is, correct?

KATHY SAWYER: Well, the major attention has been all day and yesterday on the heat shield tiles and the possibility that a piece of foam insulation struck one and damaged the underbody of the shuttle. And the NASA investigators today were trying, were hard-pressed to caution the hysteria in the media about jumping to conclusions. I use the term hysteria on myself as well as others, but we’re all anxious to know what happened, and it’s very early in the investigation. One thing about this investigation that’s striking is that we cynical reporters come at NASA with suspicions and questions, and this time, unlike after the 1986 “Challenger” accident, they’re flooding us with information and giving us long, long briefings and detailed information.

JIM LEHRER: I notice Mr. Dittemore several times during the briefing, he said “I am literally giving you every piece of information I have.” That has not been the custom in the past?

KATHY SAWYER: In the “Challenger” notably, the information was very hard to come by. Officials were much less forthcoming. They went into what has been called a defensive crouch. And of course what emerged gradually was that they had been guilty of a series of misjudgments and miscommunications and that they had committed an avoidable error. We don’t know yet what is going to be the outcome on this one, but one big obvious difference is that Ron Dittemore who conducted that briefing you’ve referred to has said more than once, “I am the responsible individual, I intend to find out if I missed something and fix it.” So there’s no trying to dodge, at least so far.

JIM LEHRER: Col. Covey how does it look to you in terms of the information that Dittemore and others are putting out at this moment?

COL. DICK COVEY: Jim, I think it’s extraordinary. I’ve watched most of the press conferences and seen the candor and professionalism that Ron Dittemore has demonstrated. I believe this is so different than what we probably were used to seeing at the “Challenger” time. I think it’s a cultural change within NASA. And it certainly is clearly the leadership now is willing to step up and say “I’m the responsible individual, I’m going to tell you as much as I know when I know it, and we’ll find out what went wrong.”

JIM LEHRER: Colonel, based on your vast experience with all of this, how does the loose insulation and the broken tile theory look to you?

COL. DICK COVEY: Well, I think we still have to be cautious about jumping to conclusions. Clearly, I think there’s… it’s easy to look and say that something violated the thermal protection system and that may have caused the eventual breakup. But what that was and how it manifested itself, I think is yet to be determined. There’s one possible cause of damage that we’re well aware of, but there may have been some other things that we haven’t yet come to understand that may have been part of it.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you just a couple of practical lay questions, Colonel. Let’s say that after the liftoff, that it had been determined, Dittemore and others have said they did look very heavily, very closely and intensely at possible damage that could have been caused by this debris. And they concluded that there had been no damage. If they had in fact determined there had been serious damage, would there have been anything they could have done about it at that point?

COL. DICK COVEY: Well, first I think you have to understand that it wasn’t that they didn’t determine that there was any damage. Their analysis determined that any damage that may have been done should not have been significant enough to cause other than maybe minor structural damage, it would not have caused a catastrophic event.

JIM LEHRER: Right, I misstated that. But the damage was not significant enough to cause this spacecraft to disintegrate. Yes. But could they have done anything if the determination had been something else?

COL. DICK COVEY: Their options would have been very limited. We have no capability on the space shuttle to do any type of even evaluation or repair, certainly not repair of damaged tiles on orbit. The orbit that the shuttle was in didn’t allow it to do things like go to the space station, nor would it have been able to have docked because it didn’t have appropriate docking things, so I’ve heard people pose that. That wasn’t an option that they could have even considered. Sending another shuttle up might have been something, but not within the time period that “Columbia” could have stayed on orbit. So from the standpoint of was there anything that they could have had the crew do, no. Was there anything that they could have done programmatically, very little. So basically the analysis that they did led them to the, that there wasn’t anything that they could have conclusively said was high risk, therefore since they’re limited on what they could do anyway, there wasn’t anything to do.

JIM LEHRER: So if in fact it turns out that that damage did do, if that incident at the launch did in fact do the damage that caused this tragedy, then those astronauts were doomed from the very… after the first few moments they took off, is that correct?

COL. DICK COVEY: If indeed we determine that the foam that came off the external tank actually caused enough damage to have led to the catastrophe, yeah, I guess you could say we were watching a fatal launch when we saw it seventeen or eighteen days ago.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Kathy, back to the specifics of the investigation, there’s been big emphasis on, also not only on the data that came from the spacecraft itself but also on the debris. Why is that so important? What do they hope they can do by finding obviously there is the number one concern of the human remains, but the debris of the spacecraft itself, what can they hope to find out from that?

KATHY SAWYER: Well, they are facing a monumental needle in a haystack search, and another analogy is a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. They have reported finding pieces in Fort Worth, all over Texas, into Louisiana, and the investigators are saying that the whole mystery could depend on the finding of one single piece of tile from the shuttle, and we’re talking about a vehicle. This is really if you look at this as an airplane crash, it’s unprecedented because this space plane was hurtling in over the coast of California when it first encountered problems, and may have dropped off pieces starting that soon. It was at 220,000 feet high, and it was decelerating from 20 times the speed of sound to 18 times the speed of sound, which is about 12,500 miles per hour when it was lost. So this is a daunting, difficult, really forensic investigation, and it’s going to be really tough to find the missing pieces.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Dittemore made the point a while ago that the most telling debris may be that as you point out that if anything could be found in California, in Arizona, New Mexico, the further back it goes, the more helpful it may be, correct?

KATHY SAWYER: That’s right. And they’re talking about the possibility of putting divers down in lakes and streams, and hunting through forests and brush, and it’s really a massive undertaking involving local authorities, multiple federal agencies, and now they’re calling on private citizens all over the Southwest.

JIM LEHRER: Col. Covey, what can you add to that in terms of importance of finding a particular piece of debris that could actually unlock the mystery here?

COL. DICK COVEY: Well, Jim, if you look at this and if you compare it to the “Challenger” accident, the “Challenger” was launching in a test range with a great deal of external sensor information in the way of tracking radars, video and film collection that became incredibly important in reconstructing what happened and determining a cause of the accident. In the case of the “Columbia” where it’s reentering at high altitude and high velocity and not in a test range environment, we have very little external data to be able to use in reconstructing what happened.

Therefore, it becomes extremely critical to find whatever we can from the vehicle itself to be able to try to piece that together. Without finding significant telltale information from the debris, I think it’s going to be difficult to pinpoint the locations of failures and the sequence of failures and to really understand, be able to back into what happened to the “Columbia”.

JIM LEHRER: Would that have been the case in the “Challenger” disaster. In other words, if they had not had good debris, so to speak, we would never have been able to get to the cause of that?

COL. DICK COVEY: No, I think in the case of the “Challenger,” because of the external data that was provided within the test range, that’s our eastern launch range, I think we would have reached the same conclusions. The debris was help to confirm and verify what happened.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s say, here again I don’t want to overdo this but it is even NASA officials themselves have said the lead suspect now does have to do with the debris, possibly, knowingly hitting… they know it hit the left wing, et cetera. Is there any telemetry of any kind that would have been at work that by itself could establish what happened? In other words, is there any way that they can eventually find some data on a computer and say, “ah, that’s it,” even if they can’t find the debris?

COL. DICK COVEY: I don’t believe so. You have to remember that because of the extreme temperatures that the external surface of the space shuttle sees on entry, well over 2,000 degrees, there’s not any instrumentation that’s on the surface, it wouldn’t stand up to the heat anyway. So there’s not data that’s going to tell them what, be able to go back and find out what tile might have come off specifically, if that’s what happened, or if there was a breach in the thermal protection system somewhere. They’re not going to have data that will tell them that specifically. However, they do have data that as they look at it, and the data that they’ve already seen that was abnormal is helping them in some way as they track through where those sensors are, where the wires for those sensors are, and reconstruct what might have happened, they will be able to build a scenario, I believe to work back out to the surface of the wing, to help them corroborate something or to get additional data.

JIM LEHRER: So when you say sensors, what you mean is the wires that told the, through the system said “hey, we’ve got a heat problem here,” that’s what you mean, right?

COL. DICK COVEY: That’s right. Those sensors are a different kind; they can be pressure, they can be temperature, they can be on-off type sensors, and they’re throughout the orbiter — lots of data, more than you’d ever have on any commercial aircraft or any test aircraft actually. So it’s very, there’s a lot of data. They may be able to use more than what they’ve seen so far to help them find some additional information.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Colonel, Kathy Sawyer, thank you both very much.

KATHY SAWYER: Thank you, Jim.