GWEN IFILL: Two-and-a-half years after the Columbia disaster, which took the lives of seven astronauts, space shuttle Discovery headed smoothly into space today without any apparent problems. The launch had been delayed once, after NASA discovered a faulty fuel gauge sensor last week.
The fuel sensors worked properly today, even though scientists say they still don't know what went wrong before. But NASA officials were jubilant today, even as they reminded reporters afterward that liftoff is just the first step.
MICHAEL GRIFFIN: The first thing you learn as a student pilot is that the flight's not over until the engine is shut off and the airplane's tied down. And we have 12 more days, plus, before we achieve that state. And that's when we'll know that this was a safe flight.
BILL PARSONS: You know, I have to add, this is a difficult mission. We still have a lot of complex maneuvers to do. We still have a lot of test objectives to meet, and we still have a lot out in front of us.
And this team -- although we were very proud and very elated to see the launch today and see how well the countdown went and everything else, there's still a lot of work in front of us.
GWEN IFILL: For more now on today's launch and Discovery's mission, we are joined by Keith Cowing, editor of NASA Watch, an online space news publication.
So how significant was this apparently successful relaunch today?
KEITH COWING: Well, they launched it. It showed that NASA can take a disaster, move through an advisory panel's nips and tucks and changes and eventually get this machine back into space again.
And it's no easy task to do it under normal situations. When you've got the whole world watching, it's even more difficult.
GWEN IFILL: Especially after last week's false start.
KEITH COWING: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: So, last week, the false start was about fuel gauge sensors, and they never exactly fixed that problem, did they?
KEITH COWING: Well, the problem here, it was a little sensor at the bottom of a tank, that -- after the Challenger accident, they needed three to be working. They added a fourth, and one of them wasn't quite working right. They couldn't really nail it down. They went back and looked at what exactly the problem is that it would be sensing and how many sensors they had. They isolated it down such that they figured that if this problem happened again, they understood all the ramifications and they had two layers of redundancy, which is what you really need in the first place.
GWEN IFILL: So if one thing went wrong, there was another backup and another backup?
KEITH COWING: Exactly. And this other one had provided a fourth level, and they felt that -- even though they are sort of skirting the issue, whether they're bending the requirements -- they still do have the required two levels of redundancy.
GWEN IFILL: But it -- a moot point because none of the fuel sensor and gauges failed today?
KEITH COWING: Exactly.
GWEN IFILL: So that was -- it was a caution, but not a caution that had to be tested.
KEITH COWING: Such is the change in many of the things that NASA now does; they're much more cautious than before the accident.
GWEN IFILL: However, there were all these fancy cameras attached to the outside of different fuel tanks and things and we saw in slow motion -- they talked about it this afternoon, today -- a couple of unidentified pieces of perhaps debris coming off the side of the fuel tank or not hitting the orbiter, or maybe, whatever. Do we have any clue what any of that could have been?
KEITH COWING: There's some ideas, and of course the whole thing is the more cameras you have watching, the more things you may see, and shuttles always shed little bits and pieces and in the case apparently hit a bird. Once they got into space and one of the solid rocket boosters came off, something flapped away. They're not sure what that is, and apparently a little bit of a tile came off.
They're investigating this, and, again, as you said, there are many camera angles to look at. But before the accident, they really didn't have a way to look at the stuff; now they do. And we'll see how good that analytical system is.
GWEN IFILL: And we'll know as the mission goes along when they begin to look at that more closely --
KEITH COWING: Absolutely.
GWEN IFILL: What that really is.
KEITH COWING: As a matter of fact, one of the reasons, one of the prime things about this mission is the ability to go out and test new procedures in space to examine the entire outer surface of the spacecraft to see if there's any damage, and actually to practice repair techniques. So you've got to hope that they don't have something to fix, but that's what a good part of this mission is about.
GWEN IFILL: Two and half years ago, when we saw Columbia, upon reentry, just disintegrate before our eyes, we knew at that time -- we didn't know at the time that it took off there was going to be any subsequent problems. What has NASA learned in the years since that would apply to this launch today?
KEITH COWING: Well, not to assume that just because something happened 10 or 20 times before and nothing bad happened as a result that when you see it happen again, it's not going to be an issue. I know that's foremost in everybody's minds today.
The moment any of us heard "something came off the shuttle," ding, you go back into - and of course, back then, they said at first, "It's only a piece of foam." Well, we found out later it didn't take much to do the damage.
GWEN IFILL: So is it fighting the last war to go back and look at the exact same problem again?
KEITH COWING: They're much more concerned -- not only concerned about things that come off, but they've developed far better ways to be certain that they understand what is coming off as soon as it happens and that they have plans in place in case it's something that's deleterious to the vehicle or to the crew.
GWEN IFILL: So what is this shuttle flight? What is Discovery going up to do?
KEITH COWING: A couple of things. First of all, it's in essence a validation that again NASA can take an old vehicle -- it's 20, 25 years old -- that's been through two accidents -- it's had an advisory team go through it with a microscope, heap a bunch of changes on it, that they can take those changes, integrate them into the vehicle, and launch it again after not doing it for two and a half years. So it's a test flight. It's as if this is a brand new spacecraft.
The second thing is they're up there looking at these tiles and how you can examine the spacecraft and fix problems. And, by the way, they're going to go to the space shuttle and deliver a whole bunch of stuff that these guys have been waiting several years for.
GWEN IFILL: It's almost beside the point in the great scheme of things, for what -- the future of the shuttle.
KEITH COWING: The interesting thing about the shuttle, this mission will probably have one of everything. There will be space walks, and robot arms and big things being moved around.
But unlike Challenger, when they came back and there was an infinite number of shuttles ahead, now the White House is afraid they can't afford to fly the shuttle as often as they felt, and there's only maybe 15 flights ahead. So it's kind of like, "Yahoo, we're back in space again," but it's the beginning of the end.
GWEN IFILL: So the space station is an important goal here, but the larger goal for the future of the space program, is that also at stake?
KEITH COWING: Well, before, under Sean O'Keefe, when they came out with the president's space vision, they said we're going to finish the space station roughly around 2010. We need to retire the shuttle so we can put something new in place.
But the driving goal was to finish the space station. Now they've decided that the shuttle's too expensive. They have got a very large cost overrun that they really haven't identified yet that has to do with the return flight, and now it's sort of flipped over that they only want to fly the shuttle maybe 15 times and whatever space station is built, it will be a result of that limited number of flights.
GWEN IFILL: After the Columbia disaster, there was a lot of discussion, introspection afterward about NASA culture, safety culture, and how that was at the root. People had seen problems but they didn't feel they could call the bosses on them. How has NASA culture -- if it was a problem then, how has it changed to allow this to take off today?
KEITH COWING: Well, I worked there, and of course the first thing you do when you hear "culture," is you sort of sigh, but you know what it is.
You've had Wayne Hale up here, and I think he's the perfect example how NASA has learned and moved on. I mean, he was there; he said he never wants to see his name on another accident report. And if you talk to the guy, and he's very, very eloquent and very down to earth about things, NASA has really not changed a lot of stuff. They're just paying closer attention to their safety requirements.
But it used to be that you'd go into a review and they'd say, "Prove it's not safe." Well, now you have to say, "Prove to me that it is safe." It's starting to percolate through the system. The fact that it's taken so long for this vehicle to finally get into space, I think is evidence of the fact they are really, really, really serious about safety.
GWEN IFILL: I read a term today I hadn't heard called "go fever."
KEITH COWING: "Go fever," "launch fever." You know, the closer you get to the launch, you really want it to happen, and you really do everything you can to make it happen.
But at some point, you sort of get on a knife edge, and that is, am I making decisions now because I really want to launch today, or do I want to stand back and say, "I want to be real safe?" And you're always skating on the edge of that and you always see a little bit of it somewhere.
But I think these guys now are far better at fighting the urge, because you really want -- I mean, I worked there -- you really want to see that thing go, and it's all you can do to stop and say, "I can't do it today."
GWEN IFILL: Is it going to be possible to declare this mission a success even one second before it returns safely to Earth?
KEITH COWING: You need to see those folks crawling down the stairway, smiling and waving. That's just the only way I think everybody is really going to sort of viscerally understand that these folks are back home, we did it, NASA did it once again.
GWEN IFILL: And if NASA does it once again this time, it will be back as if nothing bad happened, or --
KEITH COWING: Oh, no.
GWEN IFILL: Things are changed forever?
KEITH COWING: This was a scarring event. Challenger was bad enough, but Columbia was sort of like a kick in the stomach and a kick in the pants. And, you know, we're going to see if Dr. Griffin is able to kind of keep the team spirit together.
Unfortunately, the team that is bringing this shuttle back to flight, as soon as they landed, about a week later, he's more or less fired the top two people in the space shuttle program. Whether that is good or bad, whether you're going to bring new people in, I mean, it's all about -- it comes down to the people. The rocket science is difficult, but it's straightforward. It's the people, and that's your biggest challenge at NASA.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, well, so far, so good. Keith Cowing, thank you very much for helping us out.
KEITH COWING: My pleasure.