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ZAHN: Absolutely amazing show today of just how graceful a machine the shuttle can be. Also, a reminder of how flawed it still is. After putting it through a ballet in space, astronauts from Discovery were piped aboard the International Space Station. Even as they were, engineers at NASA were delivering more bad news. More foam, this time a piece apparently striking the wing of the orbiter. Reporting for us tonight, Miles O'Brien.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Space Shuttle Discovery.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After years of hard work and months of anticipation, the thrill of the launch lasted little longer than the plume Discovery left behind.

MICHAEL CABBAGE, SPACE EDITOR, "ORLANDO SENTINEL": I think it's hard to overstate just how big of a disappointment this is to NASA.

O'BRIEN: There it was again, two minutes, six seconds after liftoff, a big piece of foam peeling away, missing the orbiter, thankfully. But hitting the NASA family right in the gut.

JONATHAN CLARK, WIDOWER OF COLUMBIA ASTRONAUT: When I heard about it last night, I thought, wow.

O'BRIEN: NASA flight surgeon John Clark lost his wife, Laurel, on board Columbia on February 1st, 2003. Sixteen days before, when she and her crew mates launched to space, a big piece of foam pierced the heat shield, and Columbia was unable to withstand the blistering heat of reentry.

CLARK: The thermal protection system on the shuttle is its Achilles heel. And the debris shedding, which they anticipated very small amounts, very small size objects coming off is now obviously not the case. So they're reassessing the whole -- the whole process.

O'BRIEN: Reassessment indeed.

JOHN SHANNON, FLIGHT OPERATIONS MANAGER: We're wrong and we missed something and we have to go figure out what it was and go fix it. Whether that's just changing techniques or a redesign, we don't know.

O'BRIEN: The errant piece fell from a long, wedge-shaped section of the tank called the PAL ramp. Engineers felt it might be a source of large foam debris, but they were not certain, because they'd never had pictures like these before.

The unprecedented harvest of images has also yielded this: 20 seconds after the large piece of foam fell, a much smaller piece broke free from the same area. Engineers say it likely hit Discovery's wing.

WAYNE HALE, SHUTTLE DEPUTY PROGRAM MANAGER: This is the closest to a potential hit that we have out of all the data we've got. This was a very small piece. It wasn't the big piece that came off.

O'BRIEN: Engineers had long suspected the so-called pow ramp might be a source of debris, but the fix was not considered a high priority.

GRIFFIN: Well, there are a lot of areas on the shuttle where we know, ultimately, improvement should be had. We were not able to fix all of those. And frankly, we will never be able to fix all of those.

O'BRIEN: Fortunately, Discovery appears only slightly worse for the wear. Pictures taken by the space station crew during the shuttlesault approach to the docking, revealed only minor damage. So it appears for now the crew and NASA had dodged a few bullets.

But a question awaits when they return, how long, if ever before the fleet will fly again?

NASA can only do so much with the shuttle design, flawed as it is: frangible insulation on the outside, a fragile space craft down stream. Clearly, there won't be any shuttle launches any time soon. And many wonder if Discovery's mission might be the last.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like any aircraft you fly that eventually gets phased out, it leaves you with kind of an empty feeling in your heart. So, I will always have found memories of the shuttle and being part of the shuttle team. And I know that we are near the end.

O'BRIEN (on camera): NASA says it is sticking to its plan to fly the shuttle fleet until 2010. that had meant about 15 missions. Taking time, yet again, to redesign the external fuel tank will eat away at those flights as well as the morale of the shuttle team.

Miles O'Brien, CNN, New York.


ZAHN: So given everything that miles just reported, should NASA simply end the shuttle program right now? In a moment, we're going to talk to a space skeptic, John Pike, as well as former astronaut, Walt Cunningham from the Apollo missions.

And a little bit later on, nothing quite so serious as this, the evidence that bigfoot walks the Earth. Or is it one giant leap for mankind? One thing's for sure. This is NEWSNIGHT.


ZAHN: Earlier tonight, our executive producer asked Miles O'Brien if he thought the shuttle program would ever fly again. The look he got in return spoke volumes. So the question is, will it? And should it?

With us from Washington, John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org. And in Houston, Walter Cunningham who took Apollo 7 into space. Good to see both of you. Welcome.

Mr. Cunningham, what is your reaction to reports that, in fact a smaller piece of foam hit the orbiter. NASA saying tonight it did not strike with damaging force. How concerned are you about that?

WALTER CUNNINGHAM, APOLLO 7 PILOT: Frankly, I'm not concerned. I think the reporting so far has been far too alarmist for it. I don't believe that it extends any kind of danger to the crew on Discovery, although the ramifications of continual loss of insulation, the ramifications for the program in general, on any long, say even a two-month stand down, could be very significant for the program not for the crews.

ZAHN: Mr. Pike, do you have any concerns about the crew tonight? Is the Discovery crew vulnerable?

JOHN PIKE, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG: Well, I think you have to have concerns about it, which is why they have the extensive inspection program. My assumption based on the reporting we've seen thus far is that the inspections will conclude that the shuttle is safe to land and that the crew will return on schedule.

ZAHN: What is your chief concern, Walter, having gone to space before when it comes to Discovery. Reentry even more so than launch?

CUNNINGHAM: I'm sure that I'll watch with a little bit of baited breath, but I'm don't have extra concerns at all. I believe this will probably be one of the safest missions that NASA has ever flown. I also would be willing to bet that they have fewer strikes from insulation on the total bottom of the space craft than they've had in any recent flight. I think that they've done a great job so far, even though it still needs to be improved.

ZAHN: But Walter, what impact does it have on a the crew of Discovery to know that the space shuttle fleet now has been grounded during the middle of a mission?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I don't think it can affect their mission in any way, because I don't believe we're ever likely to have to launch the Atlantis on a rescue mission. What is really significant, though, is if we don't get the Atlantis up to help add to resupply, there's a lot of problems that can be created downstream, both with the Russians, for example, that we can't buy any more Soyuz -- can't use any more Soyuz vehicles from them. It looks like it will almost take a Hubble reservicing mission right out of the planning stage. And resupply of spares is going to be a problem as well.

ZAHN: But John, given the continuing problem with this foam insulation falling off, do you think Discovery will be the last mission of the space shuttle program? Will Atlantis fly?

PIKE: I think that we need to ask this question. I mean, for the last end, I would have had a different answer a few hours ago. But having spent all day today thinking about it, I think I've changed my mind on it. For the last 20 years, we've been trying to do two things. We've been trying to fly the shuttle. And we've been trying to build a replacement for the shuttle.

We haven't been able to build a replacement, although there have been a number of failed attempts. I think that we're at the point right now that we should take this opportunity to stand down the shuttle, take the money that we'd save there, and quickly build an Apollo-like replacement for the shuttle, something that we can operate at less expense and less hazard to the crew. We've got strong support for the program. And Tom DeLay right now, I think uniquely strong political support in the Congress. I think that we have to take this opportunity.

ZAHN: But John, I want to make sure I understand what you're saying here. That you do think Discovery, in fact, will be the last flight of the space shuttle?

PIKE: I don't know. I don't know. I don't have a crystal ball. I think that we need to think very seriously about whether that would be best for the long run future of the program, because there is the risk that we're going to run up to the end the decade when we do plan to stop flying the shuttle and we're not going to have a replacement for it.

ZAHN: You both have raised really interesting issues for all of us to think about. Walter Cunningham, John Pike, thank you for both of your insights. Appreciate it.

PIKE: Thank you.

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