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Mark Stencel
Mark Stencel
Special Report: Columbia Shuttle Tragedy
Audio: The Post's Mark Stencel reports from Cape Canaveral (Feb. 1, 2003)
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Space Shuttle Columbia:
Investigating the Accident

With Mark Stencel
Co-managing editor for online news,
The Washington Post

Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003; 6 p.m. ET

On Saturday the Space Shuttle Columbia, carrying six Americans and Israel's first astronaut, disintegrated in flames over Texas. While all of the details are yet unknown, officials are piecing together the last moments and possible causes of the shuttle's 28th -- and the shuttle program's 113th -- flight. In 42 years of U.S. human space flight, there has never been an accident during the descent to Earth or landing. On Jan. 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.

Mark Stencel, the Washington Post's co-managing editor for online news is at the Kennedy Space Center, and was online to take questions on Sunday, Feb. 2.

Stencel is former vice president for multimedia and managing editor for political news at washingtonpost.com, where he spent seven years helping to shape news coverage on the Internet. He is a former technology reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and worked at The Post as a political researcher on the national staff from 1991-'93. He is the co-author of two books on media and politics.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Welcome, Mark, and thanks for joining us. You've been down at the Kennedy Space Center for the past two days. What can you tell us about the atmosphere there? Is it more crowded than usual? What have visitors and people who work there had to say?

Mark Stencel: Sorry I'm late. NASA's afternoon news conference is still going on, so I'll keep an ear out for news while I begin answering your questions.

The "Space Coast" community, which is so tied to the space program emotionally, economically and professionally, is very affected by yesterday's news. Tourists had gathered here to watch the landing, and makeshift memorials have sprung up near the Kennedy Space Center, where Columbia took off and was supposed to land.

The 24-hour news rush here means yesterday's loss hasn’t quite sunk in for many of the hundreds of journalists here. And many of the journalists here who were also here for the Challenger accident in 1986 have commented on how different the atmosphere is now compared to 17 years ago. Perhaps it's just that this is the second accident of this kind -- or just post-9/11 numbness. I had no moment to react personally until late last night, pausing to look out at the shuttle's twin launch pads, which are lit up at night like space age lighthouses on the Florida coast three miles from the press stand.

Much as they'd become before the Challenger accident, shuttle launches have become so routine they do not attract the kind of press they once did. This launch had attracted more attention because of the flight of the first Israeli astronaut, and because of the security NASA put in place because of his presence on the flight -- and the general atmosphere since Sept. 11.

Many of the journalists who came here to cover Columbia's landing yesterday are still here, especially TV reporters who are using the dramatic settings here as a backdrop for their reports. And the press folks here were quite overwhelmed with arriving journalists yesterday. But many others have already left for the Johnson Space Flight center in Houston and for Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, where the independent investigation formally launches tomorrow.

washingtonpost.com: There has been a good deal of talk and speculation about the space program -- how and whether it will continue, the role of space exploration in the U.S., and what we've gained in scientific knowledge as a result of the space program. What were the astronauts doing aboard this Columbia mission? And what are some of the scientific and technological benefits we've reaped from the space program?

Mark Stencel: The Columbia mission was a 16-day science mission. Most recent flights have been focused on building the new International Space Station.

NASA has bet most of its future on the success of the International Space Station, which is way over budget and behind schedule. Construction cannot be completed without the shuttle since many of the parts were only designed to be ferried into space on the shuttle. By the way, the current space station crew of three (2 U.S. astronauts and 1 Russian cosmonaut) is safe. A previously scheduled unmanned resupply mission for the space station was launched from the Russian Baikonur base in Kazachstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. The station crew has supplies and a Russian Soyuz space capsule they can also use as a lifeboat. But if the shuttle fleet is grounded long, this huge construction project in space will languish.

As for the benefits of the space program, especially the manned program, that's always been a debate. And I'd be very interested in hearing what others have to say on that, especially after yesterday's loss.

Some say expensive manned space flights take money away from research that could be done more efficiently or at least less expensively than unmanned space missions. Many of the space program's real life benefits -- weather satellites, international communication, mobile phones, etc. -- are so pervasive they're almost easy to take for granted. At the same time, many of these benefits did not depend on putting humans in orbit. Certainly micro-electronic s and computer technology were accelerated somewhat by the demands and challenges of the space race (he says, typing on his little laptop via a phone line in Florida).

Texas: In the decade and more following the Challenger disaster, many studies and evaluations of the risk of losing another shuttle were done. The overall conclusion was that the shuttle, made with technologies similar to other space launch vehicles, was unlikely to be much more reliable than anything else: one or two chances in a hundred launches of vehicle destruction.

Which means that the current situation of two losses in 113 flights is just what would be expected to within the limits of statistical error.

Do you know if there's any sign NASA ever really faced up to the implications of those studies? Is it likely to do so now? -- The basic technology of the remaining three shuttles can't be changed.

Mark Stencel: I've often seen and heard NASA officials and astronauts comment on the risks. It seems to me that NASA was better prepared for this "contingency" than the rest of the world.

After Challenger, NASA made some recommended safety changes, such as adding the ability for the crew to bail out of an orbiter, at least when its rockets are off and its flying slow enough. There was no way for the crew to bail out yesterday at the point in reentry they were at when Columbia broke apart.

That said, there are part of the flight when, if something goes horribly wrong, there's effectively no escape for the crew, including the first few minutes of flight, when the shuttle is being powered into orbit with powerful solid rocket boosters that cannot be throttled off like liquid fuel rockets. Reentry is basically another one of those times.

Creating an escape mechanism for the whole crew cabin was an idea that was discussed after Challenger, as I recall, but it was dismissed as too expensive and too heavy to be practical.

Washington, D.C.: What's the feeling about this independent investigation? Maybe after so many years of "independent counsels" I'm cynical. But what's your feeling about this guy they've appointed to head the panel, as well as the other people investigating?

Mark Stencel: I don't know much about them yet and will look forward to reading more about them in tomorrow's Post, most of which will be available on the site here later tonight.

I should point out that while the investigation that Administrator O'Keefe announced today is "independent," several NASA folks will be involved, including G. Scott Hubbard, director of the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.; Associate Administrator Bryan D. O'Connor, a former astronaut who heads NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance; and Theron Bradley Jr., NASA's chief engineer.

Washington, D.C.: How seriously was the idea of terrorism taken at KSC?

Mark Stencel: Based on how long it took for the hundreds of journalists who arrived here yesterday to get cleared and credentialed, very. Security here is very tight.

Bogota, Colombia: Why was an EVA (space walk) not done once the shuttle was in orbit to ascertain any damage from the insulation foam striking the leading edge?

Mark Stencel: NASA officials pointed out at their news conferences yesterday and again today that the crew restricts its EVAs to the cargo bay, an open area behind the shuttle's cockpit and crew cabin. They also do not have any training or equipment for replacing the shuttle's protective tiles, which shield the spacecraft from the incredible heat generated when the orbiter bursts back into the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

And Ron Dittemore, the shuttle program manager, said a few minutes ago that there was always concern that an astronaut trying to do repairs on tiles might do more harm than good.

Columbia also did not carry one of the shuttle's remote control robot arms, which might have been able to look at some parts of the shuttle outside the cargo bay, but even one of these arms would not have been long enough to look at the orbiter's underside.

It will be interesting to see if any of the investigative panels make any recommendations on this topic.

Concord, Calif.: Was the shuttle carrying a military cargo? I have head that they don't announce when they do but the tip is that the payload specialist is always from the military -- as in this case. What if it was carrying a dangerous military experiment?

Mark Stencel: There was absolutely no indication of this. Conspiracy theories will no doubt abound, but I'll stick to what we've heard and what we can find. There is absolutely no indication of anything like this.

Many of the crew, including the guest mission specialist from Israel, had military backgrounds. That's no unusual among NASA's astronauts.

Hagerstown, Md.: Sir:

Was the vehicle within range for a remote-controlled detonation of an on-board bomb?

Mark Stencel: See my last answer. I have no idea. But I do know that NASA has said they have no indication that yesterday's accident was the result of any terrorist activity. And security for this flight was greater than usual.

Herndon, Va.: What's the advantage to a tile system in this incarnation? It seems as though they're such tiny pieces -- wouldn't it make more sense to have larger sections of tile? Or would that necessarily be more expensive or harder to maintain?

Mark Stencel: Sorry for the slow reply. Just wanted to skim a four-page fact sheet on this system so I could answer this correctly. In fact, some sections of tile were replaced many years ago with protective "blankets," which are of course far more hardy than what Linus carried. One reason NASA picked the various materials they use on different parts of each orbiter was because they needed something that was light weight, reusable and that could withstand both the extreme cold of space and the extreme heat of reentry. Again, I expect the investigators will spend a lot of time examining these protective systems and their maintenance.

Washington, D.C.: How much do you know about the private sector running certain parts of the space program?

Mark Stencel: About a third of the shuttle program is now run under a private contract held by United Space Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing (which bought out Rockwell Corp. and its share) and Lockheed Martin. The contract and the partnership was designed to reduce shuttle program costs.

I spent a little time today learning about this contract, which privatizes broad areas of NASA's manned space flight operations, from the solid rocket boosters to the manufacture and maintenance of the protective heat tiles and blankets we were just discussing. USA has responsibility for planning missions, developing flight software and training astronauts and ground crews. The company also equips the shuttle and its crews with everything from space suits and clothing to the meals astronauts eat in space and the toothbrushes they use to clean their teeth.

Arlington, Va.: Is it really true that someone was selling debris on e-Bay?

Mark Stencel: I hope they toss in their soul as an added bonus.

NASA officials have been careful to repeatedly remind folks that debris might be dangerous and that anyone who find fragments should report them to authorities. Also, this is federal property. You can't keep it.

Phoenix, Ariz.: Do you think this accident will result in greater cooperation between the U.S. and Russia with respect to the space program?

Mark Stencel: U.S. cooperation with Russia on the space station has kept the Russian program going since the fall of the Soviet Union. With the shuttle fleet grounded for awhile, the U.S. program may now need the Russians to keep going, at least for a short time.

Washington, D.C.: Were these vehicles, way back at the beginning of the shuttle program, really designed to be used for 20 or 30 years?

Mark Stencel: NASA says the air frames are designed to last 100 missions. This was Columbia's 28th. I'm sure investigators will examine this. But NASA's shuttle program manager said yesterday he did not think age would be a factor.

I should also point out that NASA frequently overhauls the shuttle top to bottom. Columbia was taken out of the flight rotation in 1999 for a major overhaul.

Washington, D.C.: They're saying there's no information at present about the condition of the crew compartment. Not to be grisly, but the fact that harnesses, fabric and some human remains have been recovered, isn't it safe to assume that the compartment was not intact for long, as Challenger's reportedly was?

Mark Stencel: The commission that investigated Challenger said that the crew compartment was basically intact after the shuttle exploded until it hit the Atlantic. Grisly a thought as that is. I don't know anything more about the crew's remains or the condition of the crew compartment than we've heard in NASA's news briefings and read in other news accounts.

Washington D.C.: Could Columbia have docked with the International Space Station for tile repair using the station's facilities for EVA had it been the case that tile damage was known to have existed? In that case it might be a good preventative measure for future shuttle flights to have their tiles inspected by the station facility? Could the Hubble Space Telescope be used to inspect the under side of the shuttle? Would a fish scale overlapping design be a more robust for space shuttle tile heat shield since it would allow for redundancy in the layering and also some flexibility?

Mark Stencel: The shuttle can't quite change its orbits mid-mission like a movie starship. The International Space Station orbits higher than the shuttle typically visits, except when it is specifically flown into space in a way that will route it to the station. The station was out of reach of Columbia on this mission.

NASA officials said yesterday that they had tried to get photos of the shuttle in past missions when they worried that they might have lost some of the orbiter's thermal protection. They indicated yesterday that these kinds of images didn’t prove to be terribly useful.

Vero Beach, Fla.: In the Apollo program there was an ejection capsule for the astronauts. Is there any ejection capability in the shuttle?

Mark Stencel: The very first flights on Columbia, which were two-man missions, had ejection seats. But there is no way to install ejection seats for the large flight crews that ride the shuttle into space on two different decks of the crew cabin now. There have been suggestions over the years for building a way for the entire two-story crew cabin to eject, like an old space capsule off the top of a rocket, but I think those ideas were dismissed for weight and cost reasons. Designing an entirely different space vehicle might turn out to be more practical than trying to make such significant changes to the remaining three orbiters in the shuttle fleet.

Arlington, Va.: Obviously the "damaged tile" discussion is the scenario du jour. Have you heard any other scenarios that you feel are just as valid this early in the investigation?

Mark Stencel: If I was home I'd be looking up some of the first- and second-day news stories about the Challenger accident to see what theories were bandied about in the press. I vaguely recall that there was speculation that ice on the shuttle or the pad might have ruptured a fuel line, etc. But as I recall, the leaking solid rocket booster was correctly fingered early on.

I'm willing to wait for smart people to tell us what the data shows. Astronauts often say that the shuttle is the most complicated machine ever built, with thousands and thousands of interlinked components that must all work together perfectly. So NASA's list of technical and mechanical suspects might be very long. That said, it's possible that the technical issues will be easier to identify, diagnose and perhaps even repair than the human, organizational and procedural issues that the technical flaws will spotlight, as was the case with Challenger.

Greenbelt, Md.: It seems all of the attention on NASA has been at JSC in Houston and KSC at Cape Canaveral in Florida, but there are NASA centers and facilities all over the country -- California (JPL, Dryden, Ames), New Mexico (White Sands), Texas (Johnson), Alabama (Marshall), Mississippi (Stennis), Ohio (Glenn), West Virginia (IV&V), Maryland (Goddard), Virginia (Langley & Wallops), Florida (Kennedy), New York (GISS), and D.C. (HQ).

We are just as pained about the disaster as those at KSC and JSC -- we're all members of the NASA family.

I hope this gets some mention, considering the many local NASA people in the Maryland/D.C./Virginia area, contractors and government employees.

Mark Stencel: Our condolences to everyone in the NASA community. This is a sad time for everyone in the space-faring business.

Mark Stencel: That's all the time I have this evening. Our colleague, The Post's Joel Achenbach, is scheduled to do another one of these discussions tomorrow. If I didn’t answer your question, please submit it again for Joel, who's quite an authority on this topic. There will also be an official from the Israeli embassy and former President Clinton's science advisor. Please check our homepage for links tomorrow.

Thank you for the great discussion.

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