Status Report

Trancript of Comments Made by Editor Keith Cowing on CNN’s Space Shuttle Launch Coverage, 1 July 2006

By SpaceRef Editor
July 1, 2006
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Trancript of Comments Made by Editor Keith Cowing on CNN’s Space Shuttle Launch Coverage, 1 July 2006


O’BRIEN: Welcome back, “Discovery” will not fly today, maybe not tomorrow either. We’ll find out very shortly on that, what the crew is doing right now is, quite frankly, it’s a bit of a letdown. They’re getting to go into the process of throwing all the switches back and getting unstrapped, the hatch will come open and out they will come before too long making their way to the crew quarters for if at least another night. NASA managers have a lot to consider besides the weather. They have a technical issue which they decided to fly with, but they would prefer to fly with it fixed and that is one rocket thruster that has a bad thermostat, bad heater, and would not be usable, potentially for the commander for very precise movement as they dock at the International Space Station and other precise maneuvers. So, there’ll be a meeting that’s probably underway even as we speak or will be shortly and we’ll hear very soon as to when “Discovery”‘s next launch will be.

In the meantime, that’s near term time future that we’re talking about. Let’s talk a little more long-term in bring in Keith Cowing who’s been patiently waiting for us to include him in this discussion. It’s been a busy 40 minutes or so, Keith, we apologize.

NASA, proving once again, it doesn’t take chances with weather. A lot of people would say, well, if they were willing to take a chance on the foam flying off, why wouldn’t they take a chance here, I suppose? What — try to get people a sense of perspective. You were talking a little bit earlier about how sometimes the explanation of how NASA handles the risk and calculates the risk, that message doesn’t get through loud and clear to the public.

KEITH COWING, NASAWATCH.COM: Well, NASA’s not known, often times, for being clear and saying what they mean – and meaning what they say. And the issue isn’t so much the decision that was made. As you mentioned before, Columbia was not impacted in its ability to safely take the crew into orbit. The issue was damage that was done during ascent [and the Columbia’s ability] to bring them back. During the Flight Readiness Review, Bryan O’Connor, the head of the Safety Office, and Chris Scolese, Chief Engineer, said they were “no go” for launch – but it was OK to go ahead with the mission. Now, that sounds kind of contradictory.

But, as you parse this, and as NASA sort of tried to spin and explain this all after the fact, what was really going on here is that they were voting “no go” to launch the vehicle because of the vehicle. But since the crew had a place to go to, the International Space Station, where they could stay for 82 or so days, there wasn’t going to be a risk to the crew. But again, NASA sort of stumbled in explaining this. And then when reporters tried to get documents that went with this review, the Flight Readiness Review, NASA refused to post them, even though they had put the very same documents out for the public to see before Eileen Collins’ mission.

Of course, you know, I got a hold of one of those documents that had to do with the external tank and I posted it on NASA Watch. And if you look at it – and get through all the archaic NASAese – there’s really nothing controversial in there. Yet, you’ve got to ask why NASA is so reluctant to put this information out and why they just can’t figure out how to say things very plainly and explain what it is that happened. Actually, that’s a problem.

O’BRIEN: Well, I — yeah, I guess you could say it’s a very technical thing and these are engineers who maybe — that isn’t their specialty in communicating to the general public. But it’s an important thing to do, because the general public ultimately is your constituency.

COWING: Absolutely, you just explained it – and I just explained it. Perhaps they need to hire some media types and teach them a little engineering. Somewhere in the mix you might a better explanation for things. Often times it’s [not] NASA’s technical abilities, [but] it’s ability to relate, not only decisions it’s made but also what it’s doing and why that’s important to a broader audience. So this is a bigger and more long-term problem that NASA’s had — communicating clearly with the public.

O’BRIEN: You know, I’m reminded as we watch this countdown which was postponed, or scrubbed in the NASA vernacular, today, about how labor intensive that this particular machine is and how the next idea, the next plan, the crew exploration vehicle which hearkens back to the Apollo capsules and the Gemini capsules, in many respects, it’s going to be a lot simpler to fly and that it probably would have launched today because you don’t have the requirement of a pilot of having to glide back to a runway landing.

There you see some animation of this crew exploration vehicle the just dubbed “Ares.” What are your thoughts on that? Going back to the future of this case is that a wise thing?

COWING: I think it is. And I think, you know, you learn along the way and you’ll see, of course, that these vehicles are meant to be derived in some aspects from what the shuttle’s doing, but it’s taking some of the more vulnerable things out. Plus, (INAUDIBLE) the way this shuttle orbiter is placed on the “stack”, as they call it, and how it could be damaged by virtue of stuff coming off. In the future the crew will be on top of things, such that either things falling off can’t damage the spacecraft – or if there’s a problem, they can pull away just like could do during the “Apollo” era. But hopefully that system’s going to be a lot simpler to run.

And of course, you know, the shuttle that we see today is a vintage ’70s and ’80s era design. Of course, that also means that there’ll be a lot fewer people working there, and that’s going to be a big political issue for NASA, when it finally owes up to the fact that thousands of people are going to eventually be laid off. It may be the politics that’s more difficult to do than the engineering.

O’BRIEN: Sometimes — matter of fact, most times that is true. Keith Cowing thank you, very much. The editor-in-chief of

SpaceRef staff editor.