July 8: The Future of America's Manned Space Flight Program

This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, July 8, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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BRIAN WILSON, GUEST HOST: Well, did you see these astonishing pictures yesterday? They fired another piece of foam against a simulated shuttle ring. There it is. It was supposed to replicate what happened to the space shuttle Columbia (search). The gaping hole left behind seemed to confirm investigators' worst fears and apparently answered once and for all the question of what went wrong.

But there are other questions, what happens now to America's manned space flight program? How long before the shuttle flies again? How will this impact the International Space Station (search)?

Here to talk about some of those questions, perhaps provide some answers, John Pike (search), the director of globalsecurity.org, also a FOX News contributor.

Thanks for being here. You know, what was your first reaction when you saw those pictures because I mean my mouth went open.

JOHN PIKE, DIR., GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: Weow! Weow! OK, Weow! I mean I think that was basically everyone's reaction, because up until that time, all of their computer simulations had told them that the damage was going to be virtually invisible. That their original comput -- actually, even their previous hardware simulations whether they were using fiberglass, rather than the actual heat shield, had told them it was going to be negligible damage. And then they actually do it with real hardware and it just completely invalidated all of their computer models, all of their simulations.

I think they basically had to go back to the drawing board and think about how much actual hardware testing do we have to do and how much can we rely on computer simulations. I think it just blew everybody away. This hole was a lot bigger than they thought it was going...

WILSON: Yes a lot bigger.

PIKE: Really -- yes.

WILSON: They thought they might have a hairline crack.

PIKE: Their original simulations when they were flying said this is not going to be a safety issue. After the accident, they kept saying well, we don't think it's going to be a safety. They actually did tests several weeks ago in which, you know, we don't think that this is going to produce a heck of a lot of damage. And then this enormous -- the shuttle is an enormously complex vehicle. There's no way that they can test everything. They keep changing it.

It's too expensive to test everything. But they have to be able to understand how much of this can we simulate with computer, how much do we have to test? They're going to do a lot more testing and lot less simulation.

WILSON: Well, let's talk about the computer simulations because they're so important to what we do in science.

PIKE: Well, it's essential. OK, I mean it's essential because what we're doing now has gotten so complex, OK. Instead of testing everything from end to end, you basically model things and then drop in a little real world test data to confirm that your model is adequate. And the question that you always have to ask yourself is how much real data do I need to plug into that model?

I think that what we're learning from this test yesterday is that they -- they're just going to need more data and data is expensive.

WILSON: And data is expensive but I mean it's also expensive to take a shuttle wing and blow it apart. That's something like $3.4 million

PIKE: That's exactly -- you see, that's exactly the place where we said --where NASA said to itself, and the contractors said to itself, we understand this well enough that we can simulate it with inexpensive computer, don't have to blow up expensive hardware. And now I think they're going to have to go back and ask themselves of all the things we've been simulating here, how many of them are we going to have to spend money on blowing up hardware to check.

WILSON: Let me run through a couple of real quick questions. This pretty much closes the book on what happened in your mind? Little doubt left.

PIKE: I think it's convincing in terms of the damage to the wing. The other failure modes that prompted that, I think we're going to wait to see what the final report says.

WILSON: All right now, but let's talk about what happens next? So if this is indeed what the problem was and we now know that we can't always rely on these computer simulations. And we need to go back and re-evaluate those. That sounds like we're talking about a pretty good investment in time.

PIKE: Well, it's basically a time versus money investment. I think that they're going to just need to look at how much time can they buy keeping the space station going without flying the shuttle. They're going to need to look at how many of these simulations do they need to recheck? And at the end of the day it's going to be a calculated risk because it's never going to be completely safe.

WILSON: We all know it's never going to be. And the astronauts said they all knew that going in. But the fact of the matter is some tough decisions ahead when we put up the next shuttle. If you had to make just a ballpark estimate and that's all I could ask from you right now. Given what we have, what do you think it would be? Six months? A year?

PIKE: Well, I think -- you know I mean I think that everybody has been assuming that it is going to be months, not years. But if I had to guess, I would expect that those months would be in 2004 rather in 2003.

WILSON: Really? So we're talking about pretty substantial wait?

PIKE: Possibly a longer delay than people were anticipating before the test. But I think that still we're probably looking at months not years.

WILSON: Now here comes the second line of questions. The shuttle is an aging vehicle. Do you invest more in the shuttle?

PIKE: That's been NASA's problem all along. They basically have a -- they keep going back to this fundamental question. How much do we invest in upgrading the shuttle how much do we invest in making sure the shuttle is safe.

WILSON: But we don't really have another option, do we?

PIKE: Well, we have got several other options. We can either go to a high-tech, high-cost, high payoff, single stage to orbit, or a low-tech, low payoff, unglamorous, something on top of a throwaway rocket.

WILSON: But how long does that take to develop?

PIKE: Well, it's time and money. And that's been the challenge for NASA and for the White House and for the Congress. Frankly, ever since the last shuttle accident. They haven't answered that question.

WILSON: So your best guess is that they patch up the shuttle, they figure out what went wrong, they try to keep it going?

PIKE: I think compared to the extent of re-engineering that was required after the Challenger accident that I think that this is something that they can patch up, returned to flight in months not years. But I'm hoping that they're going to look much more closely at how soon we can eventually replace the shuttle and what we're going to replace it with.

WILSON: And those decisions from inception to completion, maybe 10 years?

PIKE: Well, we went to the moon in a little over eight years.

WILSON: We spent a lot of money then, didn't we? OK.

John Pike, it's always interesting to talk to you.

PIKE: Thank you.

WILSON: Thanks for joining us.

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