Transcript: Sean O'Keefe, NASA Administrator

Following is a transcribed excerpt from FOX News Sunday, Feb. 2, 2003.

TONY SNOW, FOX NEWS: Joining us now from NASA's Washington D.C. headquarters is NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.

Mr. O'Keefe, can you give us a status report on the investigation?


We are in the process of collecting all the evidence necessary to determine exactly what caused this horrific incident. And it's been an accident of epic proportion.

Clearly, the families have suffered tremendously. And we've communicated to them and worked with them to assure them that all the facts will be gathered. We will come to conclusion on exactly what caused this.

An internal process is under way right now in the Shreveport, Louisiana, area, staged from there and east Texas and through west Louisiana, to collect up all the evidence necessary to determine exactly what caused this.

We've also formed an independent external review group of objective, independent experts who will come in and make sure we're looking at every piece of evidence to find out what the cause of this tragedy was. It will be led by Admiral Harold Gehman, who was, you may recall, Tony, three years ago was the presiding officer on the USS Cole incident. And so we've asked him to lead that external investigation.

So we're leaving nothing to chance. We're looking at every piece of evidence. We're securing all the debris and assuring that we look at every possible angle of what could have caused this horrible accident.

SNOW: You've got a lot of telemetry data available already. Is it possible that this was just a freak accident, or is it the sense that there was something structural involved?

O'KEEFE: Gosh, anything's possible. And at this stage, you know, we are making sure that we don't take any pet theory or any one approach and favoring over one or another. We're making sure we look at every possible piece of evidence, every possible element of what could have gone wrong. We're retracing the steps.

And the investigative team at Johnson Space Center, at Kennedy Space Center, and at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama -- all three are working together to determine exactly what happened here. We've got a team on the ground in east Texas and west Louisiana to make sure that everything is looked at.

So we're leaving nothing to chance, and we're not favoring one, you know, principle or possible explanation over another. We're making sure everything is collected so we can make a solid judgment of exactly what happened here and make sure that we fix it.

SNOW: OK. But terrorism is off the table?

O'KEEFE: It appears so. This happened, you know -- we lost communication at about 207,000 feet while the orbiter was traveling and completing its re-entry at Mach 18. So the likelihood of anything being prompted from the ground is extremely low.

But again, having Admiral Hal Gehman as the chairman of this external, independent review board, and his experience with the USS Cole incident and other mishaps that he had or reviewed during the course of Navy career is going to guarantee that we leave absolutely no theory unturned in this particular case.

SNOW: Do you have any plans...

O'KEEFE: So it looks improbable, but we want to make sure that an independent group certifies that rather than, you know, us just looking at the circumstances and making some judgment.

SNOW: Do you have any plans for a special memorial for the Columbia Seven?

O'KEEFE: We're working on it. That should be announced here very, very shortly. So we're looking at likely a memorial event in Houston. And stand by; we're trying to put that together very quickly.

SNOW: There are two astronauts and a cosmonaut aboard the International Space Station. They've got enough stuff on board to last them, we are told, through the end of June. Would you like to see a space shuttle retrieve them?

O'KEEFE: Absolutely. I mean, Ken Barosaks (ph), who's our Expedition Six commander, we've talked to him and Don Petit (ph), who's our science officer, and Nikolai Bodarin (ph), who is the cosmonaut aboard. All three of them were apprised of the facts of what's going on. They've been given all the information. And they're prepared to do what's necessary to stiff this out throughout the course of the investigation to make sure we find out what the cause was, get a fix in place, and then send it up when it's only possible to send a flight to retrieve them safely, and rotate the crew and send their successors on Expedition Seven.

That's what we're planning to do, and we're committed to finding out exactly what this is all about as expeditiously as we can, but as thoroughly, that's the first point, so that we can give a very straight answer to the courageous families of the crews that have suffered this tremendous loss, along with all of us.

SNOW: So it's conceivable to you that a shuttle may actually get up there by late June?

O'KEEFE: We're certainly going to, you know, not ruling out any possibility. And we're preparing for being ready to launch whenever necessary, once we have found the correction.

SNOW: It's impossible now to build new shuttles, is it not? The old plant in which they were built has been, quote, "detooled."

O'KEEFE: No, it's still there, but yes, it's been a long time. It's been, you know, 10 years since we -- Endeavor was the last one that was produced and delivered in 1992.

So it would be extremely difficult to do that, and certainly we'll want to move on with the next generation of capabilities.

SNOW: Is a Mars mission in the cards?

O'KEEFE: You know, again, that's certainly down the road. But it's one -- right now what we're looking to do is return to space flight as soon as we find out this answer of what it is that caused this and correct it and fly safely again.

That's our objective every time, and we're going to find out what it was that gave us the challenge and the problem we encountered here.

SNOW: Sean O'Keefe, anything you want to say, once again, to the families?

O'KEEFE: Most courageous people you would ever want to meet, Tony. They're astounding folks. And we thank them for understanding everything.

SNOW: All right, Sean O'Keefe, NASA administrator, thanks for joining us.

O'KEEFE: Thanks, Tony. Appreciate it very much.