BOB SCHIEFFER, Chief Washington Correspondent: Joining us this morning from NASA headquarters in Washington, Sean O'Keefe, the administrator of NASA. At the Johnson Space Center in Houston this morning, CBS space consultant Bill Harwood will join us.
Administrator O'Keefe, thank you so much for coming on what is clearly a very difficult day for you. But let me start with the obvious question. Do you have any preliminary indication as yet as to what happened here and what caused it?
SEAN O'KEEFE, NASA Administrator: Yes, good morning, Bob. Thank you.
We have begun the investigation. Late yesterday afternoon a team of investigators and technical experts from around the NASA community arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana, at Barksdale Air Force Base. They're staging there.
And there are a range of federal agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, a wide range of federal involvement, plus the state and local law enforcement officials and emergency services groups that are all helping us secure the evidence to assure that there is no tampering with that evidence so we can make a determination of exactly what did happen.
We owe it to the families of the crew to determine exactly what happened, to tell them exactly what occurred, to tell the American people what occurred, correct those problems and assure that we fly safely in the future.
SCHIEFFER: Well, will do you as they do after aircraft accidents, will you try to reassemble the shuttle on the ground?
O'KEEFE: Well, we're working the NTSB, the safety organizations and the ones that investigate accidents. We usually help with them.
So in these cases, what we're doing as a team is assuring that we've gathered the evidence, that we have everything secured so we can examine it.
It will not be a reconstruction of it, as you will, because it's a pattern of orbiter Columbia shuttle debris that stretched over the span of about 500 miles.
So collecting each of the pieces here and making sure we understand exactly what the cause of this horrific accident was is our first and foremost objective.
And the facts are being collected right now. And again, the state and local law enforcement officials have been enormously helpful. Governor Perry and Governor Foster, from Texas and Louisiana respectively, have been enormously helpful in assuring that all the evidence is preserved so we can figure out exactly what did happen.
SCHIEFFER: Well, let's defer just a minute, I want, to the expertise of Bill Harwood, our long-time CBS News reporter who has covered all of these launches.
Bill, you were one of the first to report yesterday that a piece of insulation apparently fell away as the shuttle was being launched and may have struck the wing.
Do people there at the space center now believe that should have been taken more seriously, and could that have been a cause of this?
BILL HARWOOD, CBS News Space Consultant: Well, Bob, you know, it's really preliminary at this point. And I certainly wasn't the first to report insulation hitting the wing. That video was available last week. Some engineers were discussing it kind of off-channel.
There was an investigation of that. When you see it, it looks dramatic, but the experts and the way the shuttle's heat protection system works deemed it safe for reentry. The flight director, Leroy Cain, said there was absolutely no reason to do anything different during Columbia's reentry.
Again, I think hindsight's 20-20. They're going to have to look at it. But I would point out, in an accident this complicated, with a machine moving this fast and those kind of temperature environments, it's really difficult to connect A to B without any direct evidence.
And I think, as the administrator said, recovering the debris to prove what went wrong and going through the data to gain insight is absolutely critical here.
SCHIEFFER: Well, we don't want to try to place blame, certainly not at this early point, Mr. O'Keefe, but should consideration have been given at that point to perhaps aborting this mission?
O'KEEFE: Well, no, I think, you know, Bill got it exactly right. This is an incident that is not unusual, that does occur on launch on occasion. And I think his characterization of it is precisely the facts of the matter, which is, you know, we looked at all the issues that could possibly have impacted here.
But we're not ruling this out. There is nothing we're ruling out. We're going to look at this incident, we're going to look at every other potential abnormality that occurred.
But I think Bill got it, he characterized it exactly correct.
There was nothing abnormal about any event before launch, during launch, during on orbit for the 16 days that Columbia spent up there and did a brilliant job on the science mission that was assigned to it.
And as the crew came back through, it was only at 9:00 a.m. eastern time that it was very clear that it was beginning to be some serious problems when we lost communication. Until that time, everything was normal...
SCHIEFFER: Now, you're -- let me just pick up on something.
O'KEEFE: ... so we're not ruling anything out. We're looking at every possible thing that could possibly have gone wrong. And we're locking down all the evidence, as we did right after the event, in order to make sure it's all preserved so we can examine every single detail and explore every theory.
SCHIEFFER: All right. Well, let me just pick up on that very point, because very early on you ruled out the possibility of terrorism, which, of course, in these nervous times, is the first thing that everybody thought of. How can you be so sure that it was not terrorism?
O'KEEFE: Well, what I said yesterday was that every indication is that there was nothing that seemed to emerge from the ground that would have affected it.
We lost communication at 207,000 feet, when the orbiter was just completing reentry, traveling at Mach 18 as it was proceeding through the atmosphere and reentering on its way to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And so at that altitude, the likelihood of anything originating from the ground to have impeded it was improbable.
Having said that, we have appointed an external, independent, objective review team, an investigation board led by Admiral Hal Gehman, who was the gentleman who led the investigation of the USS Cole incident three years ago, a guy who has had lots of experience in his extended distinguished naval career looking at incidents like that, to ascertain that nothing is ruled out.
SCHIEFFER: Nothing, including terror.
O'KEEFE: So, based on the preliminary understanding of the probabilities, that was not something emerging from the ground, but we've ruled no evidence out that would lead us to any other conclusion. We're going to let the facts speak for themselves.
SCHIEFFER: Including terrorism. You say you don't think that's what it was, you're almost sure that's what it wasn't, but you're not going to rule that out.
O'KEEFE: Again, not originating from the ground is where we are at the present time. But we're going to be guided by Admiral Gehman's conclusions on what he believes were the causes of the accident, whatever that may be, as they complete their investigation.
SCHIEFFER: All right...
O'KEEFE: And we support that with our internal investigative teams.
SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you this, Mr. O'Keefe. A growing number of outside consultants and experts have expressed concern about the possibility that oversight and deferred safety was put aside mainly because of budget cuts.
We have a quote in The Washington Post today from Richard Bloomberg, the chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. He says he warned Congress last year, "I've never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now."
Did the budget -- was the budget cut too much that the result was it put lives of astronauts in danger?
O'KEEFE: Not at all. I think the space operations effort that we conduct for space flight, each and every time, is an effort to assure that safety of flight and conduct of the mission is done safely all the way through.
And I think all the various oversight groups have concurred that the process we go through before each and every launch, during each and every mission, during each and every reentry, is assured that that is absolutely the case.
So there is no indication whatsoever that there is any individual factor that could have led to this at this juncture.
O'KEEFE: I'm going to let the evidence speak for itself. But I think they've often observed the kinds of oversight and efforts that we need to conduct as a management effort, and that's something that's ongoing every day.
But in terms of the process, it is positively -- any issue that comes up that would suggest from any individual that safety of flight is compromised, we act on it and stop all the proceedings until it's corrected.
SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you, you have a flight scheduled for March.
Will that flight go on schedule?
O'KEEFE: Again, as we do with every single safety of flight operation, as soon as there's an incident, we immediately suspend and put on hold the flight schedule. That's what we've done here.
We're going to find out what happened here. We owe that to the families of the crew to be sure that we run this to ground, we cover every single issue and come up with a determination of what caused this tragedy. Once we find that out, we're going to correct it and get back to flight.
SCHIEFFER: All right. Thank you very much, Mr. O'Keefe. Thank you for joining us this morning.
O'KEEFE: Thank you, Bob.
SCHIEFFER: We want to get some other views now. From Dayton, Ohio, former astronaut Mark Brown; from Albuquerque, New Mexico, former astronaut Mike Mullane.
I would ask both of you, and I'll just start with you, Mark, were you watching yesterday? Did you see these first reports? And how did you feel?
When did you realize that this was going to be something pretty bad?
MARK BROWN, Former Astronaut: Well, I saw it along with everybody else and was very shocked. There is, of course, two parts to this. There's the emotional shock of the loss of people from NASA, the NASA family. And the second one is the technical shock that something so catastrophic could go wrong with the vehicle that we were unprepared to deal with.
SCHIEFFER: Mike, let me ask you, there have been some who have said this morning that the astronauts should have done a space walk to inspect the vehicle after these reports that this insulation may have hit one of the wings.
Was that, in fact -- could they have done that? Did they have the capability to do that, and should they have?
MIKE MULLANE, Former Astronaut: Well, we always have the capability for two members to do a contingency space walk. The problem is, there's no handholds underneath the belly of the space shuttle. It would be impossible to do a walk and maneuver yourself underneath the belly of the space shuttle to do any type of inspection or repair. We have no capability of repairing a damaged heat tile.
SCHIEFFER: So, well, let me ask you, Mark, then, is there anything that the astronauts could have done, do you think, any procedure they could have followed, that might have prevented this?
BROWN: Well, there's a larger question than this. The first thing is, everything was done by the technical community after liftoff to make sure that all the data was analyzed. And everybody was comfortable, not only with the continuation of the flight, but a normal reentry.
Secondly, the crew is able to see large portions of their upper wing in orbit. Nobody reported any anomalous behavior or bent structure or anything bizarre like that. And the culmination of all that data did not indicate that anything truly abnormal even existed.
SCHIEFFER: Let me go back to Bill Harwood down in Houston.
Bill, you heard the question I asked Administrator O'Keefe about the budget being cut back so badly that it may have put the lives of the astronauts in jeopardy.
What's the sense of the people you get down there? What do they tell you off camera about the budget cutbacks? Were they concerned about it?
HARWOOD: Bob, there's a general concern with NASA and folks in the aerospace industry that there's not a political will in this country to increase the spending necessary to, A, either replace the shuttle -- and remember, this is a 30-year-old design -- or if you're not going to replace it, to implement the kinds of upgrades that you need to continuously modernize the vehicle.
Now, of course NASA has done that to a large degree, putting in new glass cockpits, high-tech displays, doing structural inspections regularly, and upgrading systems as they can.
But I think clearly, if the shuttle is this nation's one vehicle indefinitely, it's probably worthwhile to spend some more money to increase the safety of some of the systems on board.
SCHIEFFER: Mark and Mike, let me go back to you.
Mark, what is it like when reentry happens? Is that, in layman's terms, is that the scariest part of the flight?
BROWN: No, not at all. In fact, the launch, of course, is the most dynamic. That's where all the fire, the smoke, the shaking, all the normal excitement is going up into orbit. In addition, the crew is a little bit anxious, because we still have the primary mission to fulfill once we get up there.
In this case, the crew was on orbit for two weeks, they performed their job perfectly, the work was basically done, the stress of responsibility for that was over, and they were looking forward to a nominal entry.
Entry is different from ascent, where it doesn't take eight and a half minutes like ascent, but is 45 minutes long. And because it's stretched over such a protracted time and the atmosphere is so very thin at the upper altitudes where we begin this entry process, the actual deceleration is very gentle. In fact, it's more like sitting comfortably in your home chair, watching the light show out the windows as you come down through the atmosphere.
SCHIEFFER: Let me ask both of you quickly, did at any time during the flights -- and both of you made multiple flights -- feel that proper safety precautions were not being taken, that the budget was being cut back too much for safety's sake?
MULLANE: This is Mike here. I never, ever felt that there was any safety compromise on any of my missions.
Again, it's not money that makes a vehicle safe like this. It's people. The people are very dedicated; they're very smart. And I always had a high degree of confidence that people were doing their absolute best to make the vehicle safe.
I mean, you could give infinite money to the program, and that's not going to buy you total safety. It's the attitude of the team, it's the people, and they're very, very good.
By the way, on that foam that came off, I was listening to the conversations there. I think an analogy that people ought to have in mind, when the engineers were thinking about this and dismissing it as a possible serious problem, is, imagine driving down the highway at 70 miles an hour and having one of these styrofoam coolers. I mean, this insulation is very, very light, I mean, it's mostly air, it's blown-on insulation, it's very light. And imagine, it's like styrofoam. And imagine a styrofoam cooler blowing out of a pickup truck and hitting your car as you're driving at 70 miles an hour.
Would you worry about damage to your car? Would you worry that it had penetrated the steel or broken or dented? And obviously not.
I could see why engineers looking at that video would be -- would not -- I'm sure they'd look at it very, very carefully, but I could see why the gut reaction would be that this could not have caused any significant damage to this vehicle.
SCHIEFFER: Gentlemen, I'm sorry, but I guess we have to end it there. We're simply out of time.
We'll be back to talk in a moment to talk with the majority leader in the Senate, Bill Frist, in a minute.
SCHIEFFER: And for another view of all this we're joined now by the new majority leader of the Senate, Senator Bill Frist, Dr. Frist.
And in your other life, Dr. Frist, you were the chairman of the Subcommittee on Science and Technology that had a great deal to do with NASA and its operations.
Were you concerned that maybe these shuttles were just getting too old? I mean, after all, these were shuttles that some of them are, what, 20-some-odd years old. Were you concerned that safety was being put at risk because of budget pressure?
SEN. BILL FRIST, Majority Leader, R-TN: Bob, I was chairman of the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, which is within the Commerce Committee, chaired at that time by Chairman McCain, and he also chairs it now.
And we had a whole range of hearings looking at the issues that people are beginning to talk about this morning and last night: Issues surrounding the budget, is it sufficient, the work force, the aging work force, the issue surrounding shuttles that were initially envisioned to have a useful life of X number of years and now being extended to 2015, 2020.
Coming through those hearings -- and, again, this was several years ago, but the exact same issues that we will revisit once again -- I was satisfied, and my colleagues were satisfied in the United States Senate, exactly what we just heard on the earlier segment, that in this day and time, safety is first and foremost built into the culture, built into the minds of each and every one of those individuals who are, almost by hand, putting the shuttle together and refurbishing it and modernizing it to make sure it is absolutely safe.
The overall correlation with money, which will come up again and again, both in the Congress and outside, again, in terms of the priority being first and foremost safety, over time the number of shuttle flights have been cut back instead of being on one schedule, less frequent. Why? Because you want to make absolutely sure that at the end of the day, the safety of the vehicle itself, the individuals that you place in that vehicle are first and foremost.
SCHIEFFER: And you're satisfied that it is? Is that your answer?
FRIST: I'm satisfied that it is. And, you know, if we look back to 1986 and the investigations that were carried on then, some very pointed criticisms were made with regard to safety and certain areas, that that primary concern may have slipped.
But I'm convinced -- and I, like everybody else, need to wait for the investigations -- but that safety is first and foremost and that that has been upheld.
SCHIEFFER: Well, let's talk about that. What's going to happen? Is the Congress going to open its own investigation into this?
FRIST: Well, I talked to Chairman McCain last night. And now as majority leader and in leadership, and talking to the chairman of the committee that is responsible for oversight for NASA, as well as Sam Brownback, who is chairman of the Subcommittee of the Science, Technology and Space, we all agree that first and foremost that the investigation should be conducted by the professionals, the people who do this all day long...
SCHIEFFER: At NASA?
FRIST: ...the technicians. And that, number one, are people in NASA. This is what they live for, are trained to do, are professionals, number one.
And number two, the independent investigation committee that was set up yesterday that's comprised of representatives from the Army, from the Navy, from the federal organizations. Again, it's independent. They started yesterday. Their leader was appointed this morning.
Have both of them conduct the investigation. We as a Congress, as a United States Senate, have absolute confidence that their investigation will be complete, will be thorough, will involve the technical expertise that we know is necessary.
Then we will work hand-in-hand, as the Congress, as the United States Senate, with our responsibility of oversight.
SCHIEFFER: All right. And I know you have talked to Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security. Is there any concern, does Mr. Ridge have or in the administration, that this could somehow be linked to something and be something other than an accident?
FRIST: The quick answer is, there is no evidence whatsoever. When Governor Ridge called yesterday morning, after he had talked to the president of the United States, he called me and I called him back in the morning, he said two things.
First of all, number one, that from a response by government, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be the lead agency in order to cordon off all of the debris that's falling, which is very appropriate, good responsiveness, a tremendous agency I have confidence in.
And then my question back to him was the obvious question: In this day of terror when we're looking at what's happening around the world and on our own soil with regard to terrorism, is there any evidence to date? And he said no, there is not any evidence to date.
Does that rule it out? Of course not. As we go forward, we'll continue to look at it. But I'm confident, at this point in time, based on the intelligence that we have, there is no link to terrorism.
SCHIEFFER: We have about 30 seconds left. Are you still convinced that manned flight is the way to go?
FRIST: Well, you know, we had these heroes yesterday. These heroes were scientists. There is no question in my mind that the world is a better place -- whether it's CAT scans, MRIs, medicines, pharmaceutical agents, the tennis shoes we wear -- the world is a better place because of manned exploration and the heroes yesterday -- manifested in their death yesterday.
As a scientist, as a physician scientist -- and this was a scientific journey conducted over the last week and a half -- it is absolutely critical that we have the hands of men and women conducting these experiments, again, with the objective to be to make the world a better place, but to do it in a way that is absolutely safe, controlled and disciplined. And I'm confident that we will continue that exploration in the future.
SCHIEFFER: Dr. Frist, thank you so much.
FRIST: Thank you.
SCHIEFFER: Back in a moment with a final word.
SCHIEFFER: When they told Harry Truman that Franklin Roosevelt had died, Truman said he felt as if the sun and the moon and the stars had fallen from the sky. And I guess a lot of us felt that way yesterday when we saw those television pictures of the shuttle breaking up and the pieces falling back to Earth.
I guess the first thought a lot of you had was the same one I had, was this the work of terrorists? They say it wasn't, that it all happened too far up in the sky. But it is a sign of our times that when anything untoward happens, our first thought is, did terrorists do it? Terrorists have become so much a part of our lives, we are surprised when they are not the cause of terrible things.
Space travel, on the other hand, has gone so well for so long that it's become routine. We take it for granted. It is anything but routine. We are, after all, the first people who have lived on this planet who have found a way to travel beyond it, which may be the most remarkable achievement of our generation.
The foundation of America's strength has always been the courage of its people to explore the unknown, to cross the river that has not been crossed, to go to the other side of the mountain. The men and women who died yesterday were the latest in a long line of Americans who have had the courage to lead us to the next frontier.
So even as the possibility of war looms, we must pause to remember their courage and the courage of those who came before. The stars did not fall yesterday, but we are ever closer to them.
For all of us here at Face the Nation, we'll see you next week right here.