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Special Report

Surveying the Future of Space Travel

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," July 28, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

Watch "Special Report With Brit Hume" weeknights at 6 p.m. ET

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN SHANNON, NASA FLIGHT OPERATIONS MANAGER: The thing that really concerns us is that there was a very large piece of foam. And that is clearly unacceptable and clearly has to go be fixed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILSON, GUEST HOST: Well, as you know by now, the shuttle fleet, except for the one currently in orbit, is grounded. The problem of foam breaking off the external fuel tank during liftoff has apparently not been solved.

What does this mean for the shuttle mission and for the future of U.S. manned space flight program and the International Space Station? Joining us is former astronaut and FOX News contributor Tom Jones.

It’s good to have you here, as a man who’s done four shuttle flights and spent, what, 52 days in space?

TOM JONES, FORMER ASTRONAUT: It’s hard to keep track of it.

WILSON: Yes, but maybe you can give us some answers to the questions we have. One the things that first came to my mind is, we’ve grounded the shuttle fleet. The next shuttle was scheduled to take off in, oh, 40-some-odd days.

But the plan was, if the current shuttle got in trouble, that they would expedite the launch of the next shuttle. Now, with it grounded, where are we?

JONES: Well, we don’t have a rescue ship, is where we are. So NASA has the hope, of course, that Discovery, currently in orbit, is not damaged in any way. So they’ll have a safe reentry, and this emergency plan won’t have to be put into effect.

But there would be some very tough decisions to be made if a rescue mission was required. How do you weigh the risks to the rescue crew versus saving the crew that’s already in orbit?

WILSON: There is a ding in one of the tiles near the front landing gear. You say not a big deal?

JONES: It looks like, in my experience, that the shuttle’s been damaged in this way many times before, and damaged is probably too strong a word, "nicked." And this looks like the heat shield is not in any danger of being compromised. So I’m not worried about this particular defect.

WILSON: You say that happened on some of your flights.

JONES: When we would come back and land after a mission, we’d walk around underneath the belly of the orbiter, and we’d see dozens of scrapes and gouges, usually about the size of your thumbnail. And we always thought that was a maintenance issue until Columbia, when we found it could have been a catastrophic issue. This doesn’t look in that category.

WILSON: All right. Now, let’s go back to that image that is so disturbing, that is a piece of orange foam breaking off the external tank. When scientists saw that, they said, "Uh-oh," the main problem that we had has not been solved. The foam is still coming off the tank, coming off a little portion of the tank.

And this is the big problem that we grounded the shuttle fleet for before. Now we’re grounded again. If they couldn’t solve it in two years, how long is it going to take to solve it the second time around?

JONES: That’s a great question. We don’t know the answer to this foam shedding problem. After all, this effort, and all of this money, and all of the investment in engineering smarts to fix this problem, we’re back at square one.

And this is a real body blow to the space program. The future of the shuttle is to assemble the International Space Station. And if it can’t get off the ground, that outcome is in doubt. And that creates all kinds of repercussions for the future of the space program.

WILSON: Yes, I guess the question is, though, if they keep studying it, they keep studying it, and they come to the conclusion that there is no solution to the foam problem, what happens then?

JONES: Well, the next crew might be looking at a loaded gun pointed at them just as it was for the Columbia crew. And rather than accept that kind of risk over the next 20 missions or so that the shuttle has to carry out, you might want to look five years down the road and say, would we be better off investing all of that shuttle money in its replacement?

And perhaps you could get farther ahead in the exploration of space by cutting your losses with the shuttle and moving ahead with a new system.

WILSON: So that’s a real possibility here?

JONES: It’s one that any, I think, rational person would discuss as part of the trade of where you go with a very costly and long-term delay or trying to get off in a new direction with a safer, simpler vehicle.

WILSON: But what would happen in the meantime? We have no manned space program for a while?

JONES: You’d have Americans on the space station using Russian transport. And there would have to be new negotiations and agreements with the international partners to keep the space station aloft.

But eventually, you complete it with a new combination of systems. This new, crewed vehicle, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, and maybe unmanned rockets from the partners or one derived from the space shuttle’s other components.

WILSON: So I’m just kind of curious about one thing. As you look back now, and knowing what you know now about this foam-shedding problem and the apparent damage that it’s caused when little pieces of foam break off there, do you think we dodged a lot of bullets before we had this last disaster?

JONES: Columbia taught us that the potential for catastrophe was just lurking out of sight and we had dismissed the warning signs. I think NASA has not dismissed the warning signs in this case. They’re actually saying, "We’re not going to fly until the safety of the system is restored."

But it just shows how difficult it is to assure that the space shuttle can fly another five years without another catastrophe.

WILSON: And after the last catastrophe, we saw later that there were documents that were circulated around NASA. Some people really thought they had a serious problem and it wasn’t being taken seriously. What safeguards are in place now to make sure that doesn’t happen?

JONES: Well, the good news is that the communication lines within NASA are very clear and open, wide open. So the engineers who have the data, it’s streaming in from all of the cameras on the space station and at the launch site. It’s being discussed very freely with the managers. The decision-makers are fully informed in this case.

WILSON: Tom Jones, thank you for joining us.

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