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Shuttle’s Safe Return

The space shuttle Discovery glided to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California early Tuesday morning after a 14-day mission. Jeffrey Brown talks about the shuttle's return and what comes next in NASA's space program with two experts.

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  • MUSIC:

    Good day sunshine…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mission control used a Beatles' song as a wakeup call for Discovery's astronauts on their last day in space.

  • MISSION CONTROL:

    It's a nice day for sunshine, and it's a day for feet on the ground.

  • ASTRONAUT:

    We sure hope that we get our feet on the ground today.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But there was no sunshine over Discovery's home base of Cape Canaveral, Florida, this morning, and NASA officials decided to detour the shuttle to Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. It was the first shuttle re-entry since the Columbia tragedy two-and-a-half years ago, with all the tension that has hung over the entire mission.

    But Discovery returned to Earth smoothly and without incident, gliding through the early morning darkness onto the runway in the middle of the Mojave Desert, ending its 14-day, 5.8 million mile journey.

  • MISSION CONTROL:

    Congratulations on a truly spectacular test flight.

  • COMMANDER EILEEN COLLINS:

    We're happy to be back, and we congratulate the whole team for a job well done.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Commander Eileen Collins led the crew on a post- flight inspection of the craft. There had been problems: Foam debris struck the shuttle on liftoff; so-called "gap fillers" between the protective thermal tiles were damaged, forcing an unplanned spacewalk to the underbelly of the shuttle — the first time that had been done; and a ripped thermal blanket hanging just below the commander's window also caused concern.

    Today, though, the crew and NASA officials pronounced the flight a success. During the mission, the crew delivered crucial supplies to the international space station and did some repairs, including replacing a broken gyroscope used for steering.

    NASA officials had carefully referred to Discovery's trip as a "test flight" aimed at getting the shuttles back on track. During the mission, NASA announced future flights would be halted until the problem of falling debris was fixed. Today, NASA administrator Michael Griffin had this to say:

  • MICHAEL GRIFFIN:

    We need to reset the paradigm here on shuttle flights. Shuttle flights cannot be conducted according to a schedule. We would like if it were so, but it's not so. OK? What we have for the shuttle system fly out from the president is a retirement date. We are working to that retirement date in an orderly, disciplined fashion. We're going to use the remaining shuttle flights to complete the building of the space station, but we will fly each shuttle mission when it is ready to go.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At an afternoon news conference, Commander Collins said she thought NASA should keep on flying.

  • EILEEN COLLINS:

    We like challenges. We accept the challenge, and we want to go out there and do this mission. And some people say we should stop flying the shuttle because we had an accident. Frankly, we had two accidents. But we are people that believe in this mission, and we're going to continue it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    President Bush has called for the space shuttles to be retired by 2010.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We get our own assessment of the Discovery mission and the future of the shuttle from: John Logsdon, a member of the panel that investigated the Columbia accident; he's director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. And Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland; he's a director at the Washington office of the American Physical Society, a professional society of physicists. And welcome to both of you.

    Starting with you, Mr. Logsdon, NASA labeled this a test flight. It was a return to space after the Columbia tragedy. Was it a success?

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    Oh, I think with one important qualification it was an outstanding success. All of the mission objectives were achieved. All of the new systems that were put in after the Columbia accident, 107 cameras looking at all aspects of the mission, all worked well with much more information than we've ever had before. But the piece of foam that came off the external tank should not have come off, and that has to be addressed and NASA is addressing it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mr. Park what do you think?

  • ROBERT PARK:

    Well, I think it was not a success quite. Part of the purpose of this mission, whatever anyone says, was to reassure the public and Congress that we're flying again. And it didn't quite do that. And I think part of the problem: NASA is to blame. They sort of hyped this mission, and even the problems that they were having, when their underwear was sticking out and they had to go tuck it in. They made this out as a big adventure, and it simply focused attention on the fact that there are still problems.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You mean they over dramatized?

  • ROBERT PARK:

    They over dramatized it. How many times did we hear the thing described as historic and unprecedented; and this simply, I think, added to the concern of the public that, look, this thing is having a lot of trouble, and I don't think it reassured anybody.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What do you think about that?

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    Well, I think the media overreacted to the foam problem on liftoff. And that generated the debate on whether the shuttle should keep flying or not. I think this happens to be the safest shuttle that has ever flown. So if we weren't going to fly the shuttles, we should have made that decision a long time ago. This mission was a cleaner mission; the foam that did come off clearly did not hit the shuttle orbiter. So it seems to me that the kind of hysteria about the problems with this mission were very much overblown.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, you were on board that investigated what happened to Columbia. The fact that the very same or very similar thing happened, the foam falling off, does that suggest to you that perhaps they rushed too quickly back into space?

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    No, I don't think they rushed too quickly, but they made a bad engineering judgment, and NASA's — the new NASA that is open about its problems has admitted that. They looked at this particular piece of the external tank, said it had caused no problems in the past, and said we don't have to redesign, you know, it isn't broken so let's not fix it. That turns out to have been a bad judgment.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Do you see it as an engineering problem or something bigger?

  • ROBERT PARK:

    Well, I don't know if it's bigger or not. The real question is: How badly do we need the shuttle? And I think we need it for a little while longer. The scientists all hope, and I think a lot of the public hopes that they're going to fix Hubble. We're going to need this shuttle for that. And then the shuttle is the only way we have of supplying the space station.

    The space station is doing nothing, and will do nothing; there's nothing going to come out of the space station of any significance, as none of the research that has been done on the shuttle was of any significance. So ultimately, we've got to find a way to drop the space station into the ocean, harmlessly. And that's not an easy thing to do, and that's going to take a few trips of the shuttle as well.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, this is the larger question, right?

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    Right. I mean, there are risks in flying every mission. And there are benefits from finishing the version of the space station. I have some problem with scientists — Bob Park being one of them — that prejudge the results of the research before the research is performed.

    What we're building is a research laboratory and it's not finished. Sixty percent of it is on the ground, including elements from Europe and Japan. We could ground the shuttle, de-orbit the station, and get onto the next program, but I think that defaults on lots of commitments to lots of people.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me ask you one more question about this mission before we get onto some of the larger areas. One of the factors last time with Columbia was that it was called management problems. One of the factors was communications: Who's talking to whom. This time we seem to see a lot of public talk about the problems about possible solutions. Do you think it worked better this time?

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    Well, I think it's night and day in terms of the way the mission was managed. To me that's — the biggest success of the mission is the evidence that there is a team in charge of the shuttle program now that takes all this new information, listens to everybody, has open communication, makes judicious prudent decisions on how to proceed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Do you see a management change that can have an effect on whatever happens in the future with the shuttle?

  • ROBERT PARK:

    Oh, certainly I think the management change is good. And we're all hopeful that things will work better now. But ultimately, we've got to find another vehicle, if we're going to keep putting people in space. And the real question is: Do we need to keep putting people in space?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What's the answer to that?

  • ROBERT PARK:

    This is a very old fashioned way to do things, I mean, I can't believe how old fashioned it is. This is NASA, and we're doing things the way things were done at the dawn of the space program when we were competing with Russia or the Soviet Union to put people in space.

    But now, you know, what do we need people for? The first thing we have to decide is: Why do we want people up there? Until somebody can give us a good clean answer for that, if we're just going up there for adventure, I mean, we ought to go bungee jumping. This is an expensive way to do it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And in your mind, what happened with this shuttle mission changed nothing about that question?

  • ROBERT PARK:

    Changed absolutely nothing about that. We're all relieved to see that the mission came off safely. And we're going to need the shuttle for a few more missions, but hopefully not too long.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Does Discovery change the equation for you?

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    Not really, except it's a step towards the eventual retirement of the shuttle, as Mike Griffin said in your lead-in piece, there's a firm date, 2010, beyond which the shuttle will not fly. And if Bob thinks that it's old fashioned to fly the shuttle, wait until he sees what NASA will propose as its replacement, which will look like Apollo.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, tell us, what is under discussion?

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    NASA has given the term "crew exploration vehicle" to the next crew carrying vehicle.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We have a picture of it here.

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    And it follows the recommendations of the Columbia board to separate the carrying of people and the carrying of cargo. This will carry three, four, six astronauts, first to the space station, eventually to the Moon. And that's the justification, and I'm sure that Dr. Park and I can argue whether sending humans back to the Moon in preparation for eventually sending them to Mars is a worthy objective or not. I think it is. But this is a system that NASA will try to develop and have flying by 2011, or soon after the shuttle is retired.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Does this respond to some of your larger questions?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Does this respond to some of your larger questions?

  • ROBERT PARK:

    No, I mean, that's part of the concern. They're going to send a whole flock; this is a bus that they're trying to build. And what are those people going to do? They haven't figured out the mission yet. And here they're building this huge bus to carry them up there. As a matter of fact, as we're doing it right now, we have two geologists on Mars and they're doing a fantastic job. They don't break for lunch, they don't complain about the cold nights, and they live on sunshine. I mean, that's pretty hard to beat.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Mr. Logsdon, just briefly, the next question of course is when or if another shuttle goes up, that would be Atlantis.

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    It will be Atlantis; it won't happen until NASA figures out what caused this foam shedding, whether it was specific to this particular external tank, or is a general design problem and what it will take to fix it. And none of those answers are apparent yet.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Okay, John Logsdon and Robert Park, thank you both very much.

  • JOHN LOGSDON:

    Thank you.

  • ROBERT PARK:

    Thank you.

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