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THE SITUATION ROOM

Atlantis Launch Minutes Away. Gates Replacing Pace. Immigration Bill Collapses Among Finger Pointing. Secret Payments to Prince Bandar Under Scrutiny. U.S. Officials Talk of a Break-Through in the Search for Two Missing American Soldiers in Iraq.

Aired June 8, 2007 - 1900   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Lou.
Happening now, countdown to liftoff -- the space shuttle Atlantis only minutes away from a long delayed mission with seven astronauts onboard right now. We're going to bring you the launch live. That's coming up.

Also this hour exclusive new pictures and information about those two missing American soldiers in Iraq -- the chief military spokesman in Baghdad gives us the latest on the search.

And the nation's top general is out. Was Peter Pace removed to avoid a war with Congress? Tonight, the Joint Chiefs chairman wounded by the war in Iraq.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just about 37 minutes to go until the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on an 11-day mission to the international space station. We've patched in NASA's countdown clock into our SITUATION ROOM wall at NASA, hopes that this one will go off without a hitch after a series of setbacks and embarrassments, including that astronaut love triangle, and a hailstorm that damaged the shuttle and postponed this mission by three months.

But we're getting breaking news right now that may put this mission in jeopardy. Let's go to our CNN space correspondent, Miles O'Brien. He's joining us now from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. What is going on, Miles?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here it is in a nutshell. Everything here is just fine, weather, the orbiter, everything about the space shuttle just fine to launch, but the weather in Europe is not good. And you may ask why would the weather in Europe matter? There are two potential transatlantic emergency landing sites.

Every shuttle mission has to have at least one of those landing sites, good for weather, in the event that on assent, as they launch, as they rise toward orbit they lose an engine, or a couple of engines, depending on where that happens, they could coast to a landing in Europe. There's two sight center possibilities. There's one in Spain and one in France. And they just went bad on the weather. There you see it -- the Moron Air Base, Zaragoza in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Moron is closed.

In Zaragoza there are rain showers right now that are expected to move in at the time of the launch. Estrus (ph), France right now is fogged in, so as it stands right now if they had to make the decision this moment, Wolf, there would be no launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on the very unlikely scenario that they would have to have one of these emergency landings on the other side of the Atlantic.

This gives you a sense of the kinds, the level of perfection that is required in order to light the candle, so to speak, on a space shuttle. Onboard that space shuttle Atlantis a seven-member crew, their mission to go to the international space station, attach a 35,000-pound $363 million solar ray, which will try to get that space station in a position to where it has enough power to do some scientific work. As it stands, it's had tremendous setbacks and delays over time.

The Columbia disaster factoring into that tremendously and the scientific capability is very limited at this point, and it is limited to three crew members. Adding these solar rays is an important part of the final missions of the space shuttle, which is in its closing years now. It will be retired in 2010, at the end of 2010. And it will fly no more than 16 missions, probably less.

And they need to get these missions done in a timely manner. But what this underscores is, no matter how good NASA is, and no matter how well they try, whether it's this, or the hailstorm which occurred in February which caused them to roll things back to the hanger, and patch up that external tank, there is a lot of things in this business that are out of their control, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're only what, a little bit more than a half an hour away from the scheduled launch. At what point do they have to make a decision and say it's a go or not?

O'BRIEN: They will take it right down to the wire, Wolf. They've fuelled this thing up. They've strapped in the astronauts. They've closed the hatch. They'll do everything they can to bring it down to that last minute, make a decision. They'll put a hold in, and I'm just being told in my ear that Estrus (ph), France is now OK for weather. So there you have it.

This is a very dynamic situation. We are watching something -- this is literally touch-and-go. We had a report of fog there. It was red for weather, as they say here. Now they're saying it's green for weather. Let's listen for just a moment, if we can, to NASA, if they're talking about it right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, zero, (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's good copy. And that's the only update we have for you.

O'BRIEN: All right. That was...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Still going to be on (UNINTELLIGIBLE). O'BRIEN: All right. That's a bunch of gobbledy-gook that has to do with their communications capabilities, Wolf, but essentially at this point we've got one of the transatlantic abort sites. The one in Spain is red; no go for landing in an emergency. Estrus (ph), France, just became OK, was red a little while ago, obviously a dynamic situation. We'll just have to watch this one very closely all throughout the next 30 minutes or so.

BLITZER: And they only need one of those sites, either in Spain, or in France, available for this emergency kind of landing in order to launch this shuttle. They don't need them both ready, is that right, Miles?

O'BRIEN: That's correct, just one in green and they're good to go, so let's hope in 20 minutes or so when they get down to that point, or 30 minutes or so, when they get down to that point, it's still in the green. But you know how fog can be. Maybe it's lifted. I'll have to get some more information for you on whether that's a trend or whether there's patches of fog rolling through there. If at the moment they have to launch, 7:38:04 Eastern Time, if at that moment, and it's a very narrow window, because basically what they're trying to do, Wolf, is reach that international space station.

It's flying overhead at 17,000 miles an hour, and it's kind of like throwing a football to a receiver. You've got to hit that football, you've got to throw that thing at just the right moment in order to get the football in the hands of the receiver. The shuttle is the football. The receiver is the space station. And there's only one brief moment a day when they can make that launch. It's a five- minute window and if the weather isn't right in that five-minute slot, no launch. So it really boils down to the weather in a five-minute slot. Let's hope that it looks good.

BLITZER: Miles, stand by. We're going to be coming back to you. We're only a little bit more than a half an hour from that scheduled launch. And let's never forget there are seven astronauts that are going up on this shuttle, the Atlantis. Rick Sturckow is the mission commander. He's also a U.S. Marine colonel. Lee Archambault is the pilot. He's an Air Force colonel.

And this is his first shuttle flight. He'll be involved in operating the shuttle robot arm. The rest of the crew are mission specialists. James Reilly once flew to the Mir space station. Stephen Swanson is the flight engineer of Atlantis. Patrick Forrester will be doing one space walk on this mission and coordinating two other walks.

And Danny Olivas is an expert on shuttle heat shields. Finally, Clayton Anderson will be staying on the international space station, taking the place of Sunita Williams who will be hitching a ride home on Atlantis. Don't forget, you're going to see live coverage of the liftoff right here, this hour, in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're watching all of this very, very closely. We'll come back to this story momentarily.

But there's been a surprise announcement from the Pentagon. The Defense Secretary Robert Gates announcing he's replacing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace. And in an extraordinary move, Gates concedes the politics of the war in Iraq are to blame.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. Barbara, I've never seen anything remotely similar to this involving a chairman of the Joint Chiefs. But give our viewers an update what exactly is the defense secretary saying?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, by all accounts starting with Defense Secretary Gates, it was politics on Capitol Hill that made him decide not to re-nominate General Pace.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): In the face of overwhelming public opposition to the Iraq war, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear he's not willing to take the heat from Congress, so he's recommending to President Bush that General Peter Pace not be re-nominated as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior military adviser to the president.

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The focus of his confirmation process would have been on the past rather than the future. And further, that there was the very real prospect the process would be quite contentious.

STARR: For the last two weeks, both Democratic and Republican senators warned Gates a confirmation hearing would turn into a referendum on the conduct of the war.

GATES: I wish that that were not the case. I wish it were not necessary to make a decision like this. But I think it's a realistic appraisal of where we are.

STARR: Pace gave no hint of what was in the works, just a day before the secretary's announcement.

GEN. PETER PACE, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I will serve the nation as long as the nation wants me to serve.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir. Has there been any decision?

PACE: You're asking the wrong guy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, sir.

STARR: Military and congressional sources say it's unclear if Pace would have been confirmed. But the political debate about the war and the rising death rate for U.S. troops now casts a long shadow. Admiral Michael Mullen will be nominated now as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs and take office just as the military's assessment of the war is expected.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now Wolf, in addition to the war, sources tell CNN General Pace was facing two other significant problems on Capitol Hill. His recent statements that he believed homosexual behavior was immoral, and he wrote a letter to the judge in the "Scooter" Libby case attesting to Libby's character. Wolf?

BLITZER: What a story, Barbara. Thanks very much.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty. He's in New York with "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, the immigration bill is dead, at least for now. Once again, faced with adversity, the government retreats and does nothing, which in this case actually could be a good thing. After all, we do have laws against illegal immigration; we just don't bother to enforce them.

And now the blame game is well underway in our nation's capitol. Republicans are blaming the Democrats. Senator Trent Lott says Majority Leader Harry Reid is at fault for pushing the vote too early. Senator Lindsey Graham also blames Reid for curbing Republican amendments to the bill. And if you ask the Democrats, a lot of them blame President Bush, saying that despite his support for the bill, he sunk it by not delivering enough votes.

After all, immigration reform was Mr. Bush's top domestic priority and arguably his last best chance of achieving victory on something. White House adviser Dan Bartlett says the president wants Reid to consider putting the bill back on the table. And Reid insists the bill isn't dead. Don't hold your breath.

Meanwhile, polls continue to show that illegal immigration will be an important issue when Americans go to the polls to vote for their next president. So here's the question -- who will the American people ultimately hold responsible for the failure of the immigration bill? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thank you very much.

Coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM we're keeping our eyes on the launch pad, the countdown clock and the weather. We're going to bring you the lift-off of the space shuttle Atlantis live, when it happens, if it happens. Right now it should be happening, but we're watching this. This is touch-and-go.

Plus, what did President Bush take with him from the G-8 summit besides a travel bug? We're keeping tabs on missile defense diplomacy overseas.

Also, the alleged secret payments to a Saudi prince with close ties to the White House. We're looking at the fallout.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Countdown to the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, happening soon here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We've just heard NASA say they have a good configuration for launch. We're watching this very closely. It's coming up here. You're going to see it live, the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, with seven astronauts onboard. They're heading for an 11-day mission. Miles O'Brien is on the scene for us.

Other news though we're following right now -- questions swirling tonight about alleged secret payments to a Saudi prince with very close ties to the Bush administration. That would be the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us with details. Brian, tell our viewers what these allegations are all about.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they are about charges that Prince Bandar used the ties that he also had with the British government to make billions of dollars in secret payments. Now that government and this very high-profile Saudi royal are on the defensive.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A wealthy Saudi prince with deep connections to America, an estate in Aspen worth $135 million, tutor on foreign affairs to George W. Bush before he became president, confidant of George Bush, Sr., Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a crucial broker in the first Gulf War. Now, questions about another deal he brokered, "The Guardian" newspaper in the BBC report Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., may have gotten up to $2 billion in secret payments from a British defense firm.

The payments they say took place over 20 years and were sanctioned by the British government in return for Bandar's help in negotiating a multi-billion-dollar deal to sell British war planes to the Saudis in 1985. The British firm BAE denies wrongdoing. But Prime Minister Tony Blair admits he supported a decision to quash an internal British investigation.

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: I don't believe the investigation would have led anywhere, except to the complete wreckage of a vital strategic relationship for our country, in terms of fighting terrorism, in terms of the Middle East, in terms of British interests there.

TODD: Through his attorney, Prince Bandar issued a statement denying taking what he called backhanders. He says he was authorized to handle the money, channeled to the now defunct Riggs Bank in Washington, that the accounts were audited by the Saudi government, and at no stage have the Ministry of Defense and Aviation or the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Finance identified any irregularities in the conduct of the accounts. But that, too, leaves questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who is the ministry of defense? The minister of defense is Bandar's father, Prince Sultan, who is also next in line for the throne.

TODD: Thomas Lippman who covered Saudi Arabia for "The Washington Post" says payments like these are standard with the Saudis and often justified by western governments and companies.

THOMAS LIPPMAN, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE: This has been a relationship that has held to both sides. But it's also one in which business is not done the way it's done in Australia or Canada.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Bandar says he's consulting with his attorneys regarding these media reports, but analysts say they will likely not affect his current standing as Saudi Arabia's national security adviser and they may be never reported in the Saudi media -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story, Brian. Thanks very much -- Brian Todd watching this story for us.

Let's check in with Carol Costello. She's monitoring some other incoming stories to THE SITUATION ROOM -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Well let's head out to the airports right now because many air travelers up and down the East Coast are waiting out severe delays. The FAA says a technical failure involving a computer in Atlanta that processes flight plans caused the delays. That problem has been fixed for more than eight hours now, but it's caused a cascade effect that has caused backups, and at least 50 cancellations.

Democratic Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana says the corruption charges against him are, in his words, contrived. A 16- count indictment charges him with soliciting bribes, wire fraud, racketeering and more while allegedly brokering business deals in Africa. Just hours ago Jefferson entered a not guilty plea in a federal court in Alexandra, Virginia. He's vowing to clear his name and has asked the news media and the public to quote, "keep an open mind."

Dick Cheney's pacemaker is running low on battery power. The vice president's office says he'll undergo elective surgery this summer to replace the device. Cheney has suffered four heart attacks. The checkup is said to have uncovered no new coronary blockages.

That's a look at the headlines right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Carol, for that.

Still ahead, here in THE SITUATION ROOM the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. We're less than 20 minutes away from the scheduled liftoff. You're going to witness it live. There are seven astronauts onboard. Right now they are strapped in; they're ready to go up in space. We're watching this. You're going to want to see this. Miles O'Brien is on the scene for us.

We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Only minutes away from the planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. Seven astronauts are waiting to take off on NASA's first flight of this year. The first flight may have to wait, though. Weather problems in Europe could potentially put the launch in jeopardy, although right now we're told it's expected to take off at 7:38 Eastern Time. That's coming up, what, in less than 20 minutes or so.

Once it gets down to nine minutes, this clock behind me as you see will start to roll. And then we'll be able to get -- we'll be able to watch the countdown specifically. Miles O'Brien is at Cape Kennedy for us watching all of this closely. We're going to watch this takeoff, this launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.

But there's some other news that we're watching right now as well. This is a story so painful for many people. In the search for those two missing U.S. soldiers in Iraq, we now have some exclusive new pictures, and exclusive information. Let's bring back Brian Todd. He's watching this story for us. Brian, tell our viewers what you've learned.

TODD: Wolf, we've learned that this exhaustive search involving thousands of U.S. troops over the course of four weeks now may finally be paying some dividends.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): For the first time in nearly a month, U.S. officials talk of a break-through in the search for two missing American soldiers in Iraq. They say massive deployments of U.S. and Iraqi forces have worked around the clock to gather intelligence and...

BRIG. GEN. KEVIN BERGNER, SPOKESMAN, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: That intelligence and that information has led us to be able to identify 17 named individuals who either planned or executed the attack on our soldiers. And we have subsequently been able to detainee three of those individuals that were involved.

TODD: General Kevin Bergner says the multi-national forces conducting what he calls the appropriate questioning to get information from those captured. U.S. military officials provided CNN with pictures of militants in black masks, but it's not clear if they are the ones taken into U.S. custody. The images are apparently from a video released by the Islamic State of Iraq which claimed responsibility for the attack and showed what appeared to be the military I.D.s of the missing soldiers, Specialist Alex Jimenez and Private Byron Fouty.

Four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi were killed in the May 12 ambush at an observation post south of Baghdad when Jimenez and Fouty went missing. The body of another soldier, Private First Class Joseph Anzak, Jr. was found 11 days later. General Bergner was cautious when asked what the U.S. has learned about the abduction and those responsible.

BERGNER: The operational aspects of how they conducted the attack and specifically who was involved and the possibility that that information could lead us to locate our missing soldiers is what we're all focused on. And you can understand that sharing any more than that would perhaps not be in the best interest of our soldiers.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And that search continues as we said, now, four weeks old, Wolf, and we're going to be monitoring this in the days to come. Hopefully signs of those soldiers pretty soon.

BLITZER: We can only hope. Thanks very much, Brian Todd, for that.

Just ahead, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) minus 12, 13 minutes, we're counting down -- NASA, clear to launch the shuttle Atlantis. You're going to witness it right here after a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The final countdown underway for the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, now scheduled to lift off in only a few minutes. Let's bring in our space correspondent Miles O'Brien. He's live at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Miles, walk us through the process. What's going on? What, we're only 10 minutes or so away from the launch.

O'BRIEN: Wolf, just a little while ago, Mike Leinbach, who is the NASA launch director here, gave the traditional poll to all the key people, all the engineers and technicians sitting at those consoles in the launch control center, which is just across the parking lot from where I stand right now.

This is where the rubber meets the road for them. And he asked them individually, each team, go or no go for launch. They have gone through that entire group of people, dozens and dozens of them, and each one of them came back and said go for launch. The issue that we're talking about just a little while ago...

BLITZER: Miles, I'm going to interrupt you for one moment, because underneath you, our viewers will see here in THE SITUATION ROOM, while the countdown clock has now started, 8:40, 8:39, it's going full speed ahead right now. But go ahead.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it is. And so what they do, right before they come out of that hold is they just did about 20 seconds ago, is they have that poll. And everybody came back and said we're good to go for launch, Mike Leinbach, and off they went. They sent some words to the space shuttle commander, Rick Sturckow, his crew of six, along with him and said looks like it's going to be a night to fly.

So far so good, but there have been many countdowns over the course of this program. This is the 118th flight that have had scrubs, that have had delays inside this very critical timeframe. Joining me now is Cady Coleman (ph), who is two-time shuttle flier, been through -- have you actually been through a late kind of in the countdown scrub yourself?

CADY COLEMAN, NASA ASTRONAUT: Absolutely. We actually scrubbed about seven seconds.

O'BRIEN: OK. Tell me about that one. I -- remind me about what happens as you get down to that point. You have a scrub at seven seconds. That's right before the main engines start, right?

COLEMAN: It is. Absolutely. And we had what was an indication of a hydrogen leak. It turned out to be a sensor problem, but there was, you know, one guy, one young guy that saw that reading, knew the right thing to do, pushed that button, stopped the main engines from lighting. Because once you've lit those main engines, now you've got a more dangerous abort. And I think he got a lot of safety awards for that and a lot of recognition.

O'BRIEN: Well, let's talk about that. We talk so much about the crew. They're strapped into this vehicle. As we look at the shuttle's -- the shuttle way, if you will, the jet way for the shuttle, the white room. The arm is retracted. That's part of the whole process that we're seeing unfold right now, as they get ready for this launch.

Let's talk about the kind of pressure -- and these are sometimes very young people that they put in these positions, who have to make these critical decisions in seconds.

Really, the weight of the program falls on their shoulders, doesn't it?

COLEMAN: It does. And every one of them is certified in their position. I mean they have trained for it. They have practiced. They have been in simulations. For some of them, this may be their first launch and for some of them this may be their, you know, however many launch. I mean there's -- some of them have a lot of experience.

And when I hear that launch poll, you know, go for launch, go for launch, I'm thinking of who each of those people are. And I know that when I hear that as the crew onboard, they've done their job. And if they say, we're ready, we're ready.

O'BRIEN: All right, taking a look at that as that arm is retracted, let's go back onboard, if you will. They've had their communication checks. They've had their final words from the launch director before they get into the earnest part of the countdown. Now it gets tense, doesn't it?

Is tense the word?

COLEMAN: It gets to look like the real ball game. You know, you've been getting ready. You've been sitting there hoping you will launch. And now, I think, their eyes are on the game. They are looking at the checklist, following along. There are things that they have to do as the checklist goes along. And I think that's all they're thinking about is their job, doing their part.

BLITZER: Miles, I just want us to listen in briefly as we hear that -- as we get closer to the five minute mark, there are going to be some announcements of what they're doing -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Basically there's a lot -- there's a fair amount of banter that goes back and forth -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And maybe we could hear some of that, especially as we get to T minus five minutes.

Tell our viewers what happens then.

O'BRIEN: Well, first of all, that's a wonderful shot right there, as you look back to where we are. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Copy.

O'BRIEN: Now, what they're talking about is a series of instrument readings that they're trying to get, as systems are brought alive. At this point -- are they bringing the auxiliary power units alive right now?

COLEMAN: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: Right there.

COLEMAN: Those are really big systems and that's why sometimes we actually hold before five minutes, you know, in case things are maybe not right. We want to make sure we don't start those until we really think we're going to launch.

O'BRIEN: The auxiliary power units, Wolf, power the shuttle's aerosurface...

COLEMAN: Hydraulics.

O'BRIEN: ... the hydraulics. And if they -- in the case of -- when they're in the atmosphere...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: T minus five minutes and counting.

O'BRIEN: ... these actual -- these auxiliary power units provide that capability. That hydraulic system a very critical system, three of them...

COLEMAN: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: ... because you need that kind of redundancy in this kind of thing.

COLEMAN: We actually only need one, but we've got three just in case.

BLITZER: Just in case.

Bill Nelson, the senator from Florida, himself a former astronaut, guys, he's joining us on the phone right now.

Senator Nelson, as we see what's going on now, we're, what, four- and-a-half minutes away.

You've been there. You've done it.

What's going through your mind?

SEN. BEN NELSON (D), NEBRASKA: Well, you're lying on your back strapped in. They close the risers. They're ready to go. They're very expectant. The heart rate starts to pick up. And as they get on down -- 31 seconds -- everything goes internal to the computers onboard the space shuttle.

And at that point, at T minus six, the main engines will white off. You feel the vibration. The shuttle starts to sway. It comes back to the vertical position. And at T minus zero, those two big candle sticks, the solid rocket motors, light off. And when they light off, you definitely know you're going someplace and you just hope it's straight up.

BLITZER: It's probably an experience, Senator Nelson, an experience that you can never have anyplace else. It's an amazing feeling, I assume, that's launch?

NELSON: As we started to clear the launch tower, I looked through the little hatch window down on the mid-deck and could see us slide right by the steel of the launch tower. And then I could actually see that roll that you'll see upon launch.

And I was then looking south out the window, down the coast of Florida. And then it was -- it was get out of dodge. I mean that thing starts accelerating.

BLITZER: All right, let me go back to Miles O'Brien.

We're under three minutes before this launch, Miles.

What are they doing now?

O'BRIEN: Well, right now, I just saw, they were doing -- I don't know if you saw, as Senator Nelson was speaking there, if you saw what's known as the Gimbal check -- the big funnels at the bottom, which are the three main engines, have the ability to direct that nozzle, of course, that thrust. And they did.

They went through sort of a full rotation of their Gimbals to make sure that they're free and correct and can do what they need to do.

At this point, Cady, we're going to see at the top, at the very top of the external fuel tank which -- they call it the beanie cap. It's the gaseous oxygen vent hood. It basically ensures that excess liquid oxygen doesn't form at the top and form an ice problem and it sort of bleeds it off and takes it away from the external tank.

This is down to the serious moments now, at the two minute point.

COLEMAN: Close and lock your visors. That's what they just said.

O'BRIEN: Close and lock your...

BLITZER: But what does that mean?

What does that mean, Cady?

COLEMAN: You're making your suit a pressure suit. You know, you're taking your visor, putting it down actually seals your suit. That suit is now your own little survival capsule, should you need it.

O'BRIEN: Basically what it is, is it has a -- it's a pressure capsule that allows them to, if they had to, for whatever reason, lost pressure inside the orbiter, at high altitudes, they sort of have a self-contained spacecraft, essentially.

COLEMAN: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: And so that -- at this point now...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: T minus 90 seconds and counting.

O'BRIEN: Ninety seconds. You're listening to George Dillard, by the way. He's public affairs officer here from NASA inside the launch control center.

Shortly after it launches, you'll be hearing Kyle Herring, who is a public affairs officer from Houston. They'll be making critical calls as the orbiter makes its way toward space.

Eight-and-a-half minutes of powered flight.

BLITZER: And we just...

O'BRIEN: The first couple of (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

BLITZER: We just went a little bit more than 60 seconds away.

O'BRIEN: A little more than 60 seconds away. And, Wolf, those solid rocket boosters on the side of that fuel tank will carry them for the first couple of minutes, a very critical part of the flight.

BLITZER: All right, Miles, I just want to listen now to what they're saying, as we count down from 45 seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Forty-five seconds and counting.

Forty-five seconds to launch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) number two.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Standing by for the handoff.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) three. We're go.

Copy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the handoff has occurred.

Ground loss sequencer has handed off to Atlantis' onboard computers.

Forty-five seconds.

The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) pressured water system is activated.

Fifteen seconds and counting.

T minus 10, nine, eight, seven -- the main engine starts -- five, four, three, two, one.

And liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis, to assemble the framework for the science laboratories of tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houston now controlling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's Atlantis (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger, Lowell, Atlantis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis's roll maneuver is complete. The orbiter is in a heads down position, on course for a 51.6 degree, 137 by 36 statute mile orbit.

All systems in good shape.

The engines throttling down as Atlantis prepares to maneuver through the area of maximum dynamic pressure on the vehicle in the lower atmosphere.

Already seven miles away from the Kennedy Space Center, at an altitude of five miles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houston -- Atlantis.

Go at throttle up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Copy -- Houston.

Go at throttle up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One minute, 10 seconds into the flight.

The three liquid fueled engines are back at full throttle.

At liftoff, the full fueled shuttle boosters and external tank weighed four-and-a-half million pounds. It has now burned half that liftoff weight in propellant. One minute, 30 seconds. All hydraulic systems in good shape. The electricity producing fuel cells also in excellent shape, as Atlantis heads down range, 18 miles from the Kennedy Space Center at an altitude of 18 miles.

The next event is burnout and separation of the twin solid rocket boosters, which are burning propellant at a rate of 11,000 pounds per second.

SRB separation is confirmed two minutes, 15 seconds into the flight. Atlantis is traveling 3,000 miles per hour down range from the Kennedy Space Center, 46 miles, altitude 35 miles.

The condition of the twin orbital maneuvering system engines on the tail of the orbiter providing an additional boost toward assent and heading off toward the International Space Station.

Two minutes, 45 seconds into the flight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis -- two engine tow (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Copy. You have two engine tow (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis can reach Zaragoza in Spain in the event of a single engine failure. However, all three engines are continuing performing as expected.

Hydraulic systems in excellent shape, as are the fuel cells producing the electricity for the vehicle.

Three minutes, 20 seconds into the flight. Atlantis is 97 miles down range, at an altitude of 51 miles, traveling 6,000 miles per hour.

Views from the external tank camera looking down the vehicle. Very quiet here in mission control, as the flight control team continues to watch over all systems. Everything continuing to go very smoothly with Atlantis' voyage to the International Space Station. Three minutes, 50 seconds into the flight.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis -- negative return.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger -- negative return.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis can no longer return to the Kennedy Space Center in the event of an engine failure, but all three are continuing to perform well, as are the hydraulic systems and the electricity producing fuel cells.

Four minutes, 20 seconds into the flight.

Atlantis is 175 miles down range from the launch site, at an altitude of 62 miles, now traveling 8,000 miles per hour.

BLITZER: All right, this has been an amazing -- an amazing sight. No matter how many times you see this kind of launch, the heart is beating a little bit more rapidly. It's obviously something that -- that all of us want to see. And it seems to be going rather smoothly right now -- Miles O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: You know, Wolf, I've got to tell you, every time this happens, it truly -- I stop breathing for a little while. Because, frankly, being here and feeling the force, just the concussive force, in particular those solid rocket boosters as they're lit, as it kind of makes its way like a shock wave across the mangroves from launch to us and then hits you, like smacks you. It is bone jarring.

And to think, when you feel that kind of power and you see the brightness coming off of that -- that rocket -- those rocket nozzles, as they make their way up. And to know there are seven souls strapped onto this, what amounts to a controlled explosion, on their way to space, if you're not a little bit taken aback, you're not paying much attention, that's all I can say to that.

It is a -- it is a spectacular sight to watch this all unfold.

Cady, what are your, thoughts as you see it?

You want to be there, I imagine.

COLEMAN: : You know, a long time ago I figured out it wasn't my turn on this one. And, just as you said, it is so powerful. It is so bright. You think you remember how loud it is and how bright it is. But it just -- you just can't, because it's just so much bigger than all of us. And to realize that there are people in there. They're going to space.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis, single engine.

There it goes to 104.

BLITZER: Miles and Cady, if you can explain to our viewers -- there is an emergency landing procedure. We were talking about it earlier -- one in Spain and one in France. But tell our viewers about that a little bit.

But first tell us about this rollover that seems to be happening right now.

O'BRIEN: Yes, well...

COLEMAN: : Well, it looks like a rollover, but it's actually just the angle of the sun. And you're seeing sort of the shadow passing there. But they are doing a roll there.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Part -- part of that is to maintain a good, healthy communication screen between the satellites or ground stations. They start off communicating to ground stations. As they get closer to space, they start communicating with satellites.

And where the antennas are located has some of it -- to do with that. And they also need to prepare to jettison that external fuel tank, which heads on its way to the Indian Ocean. So they need to get set up for that, as well.

And so that's why the Earth is suddenly appearing below you, as if -- whereas it looked inverted a little before.

I want to -- you heard those calls coming up, two engine tell. Two engine tell, Zaragoza, single engine, Zaragoza, single engine. Zaragoza, single engine. Zaragoza again. Negative return.

All of those have to do with the amount of speed and altitude and energy that the shuttle has. The more it gets, the more options you have for an emergency. The last call you heard, single engine press damico, or which I think -- I think they already did that. It means even if they only had one engine, if they lost two, they would still continue on until the main engine cut off and would be able to maintain, I believe, some sort of orbit, correct?

COLEMAN: : Correct. Correct.

O'BRIEN: So basically, the higher they go, the faster they go, the more options they have should things go wrong. It begins with the possibility of them having to come back here. It moves into a transatlantic landing perhaps. It goes to a degraded orbit. And then finally, it goes to situations where maybe they would have one orbit around and landing, until finally perhaps even having enough of an orbit to maintain the mission.

As they get higher, things get better for them.

BLITZER: And I just want to remind our viewers, Cady Coleman, yourself an astronaut, they're heading out to the International Space Station.

How long is it going to take to get to the -- to get to the space station?

COLEMAN: : Well, we have a series of little burns that we do in order to catch up. And basically we're sort of always sort of boosting up to their orbit. It actually takes about three days to get...

O'BRIEN: All right, get ready. Main engine cut off. Watch the tank disappear. As a matter of fact, if you could lose that banner right now, it would be great. You can see the main engine go away.

To lose the banner would be nice. And you'll see, in just a second, that whole separation there between the shuttle and the main engine. It's going to happen very shortly here.

BLITZER: There it is.

Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... dissolution of the fuel tank has also been confirmed. The crew hand held photography set up will be underway shortly with the Plus X maneuver that's managed by the commander onboard, Rick Sturckow.

Atlantis falling away. You can see the thruster jets firing as the orbiter is being maneuver for the hand held photography.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis -- Houston.

We show a nominal mico, ohms one is not required.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis, (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

(INAUDIBLE) that request.

O'BRIEN: What they're saying is there, Wolf, is -- they're saying there is that essentially they've -- the main engines have done their job. They don't have to fire some auxiliary engines, called the orbital maneuvering system, to attain their orbit.

So everything has gone according to plan so far.

Cady?

COLEMAN: : Well, and what they're doing now is actually taking pictures of that external tank. That's why they do that maneuver away, so they can actually take pictures and understand what the tank looked like when they separated. Just all more pieces of the puzzle as they try to understand did anything happen during ascent?

BLITZER: And we're seeing mission control...

O'BRIEN: There you see the launch control team. They put their jackets on.

BLITZER: Are they -- are they giving a...

O'BRIEN: And they're (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

BLITZER: Miles...

O'BRIEN: And this is...

BLITZER: ... are they giving each other high fives right now? Or is that too early for that?

O'BRIEN: No, these guys in launch control center, they have finished their job. And they have a point of satisfaction. The guys in mission control, they've got 12 days before they do a high five because they're the ones that are managing t mission.

Sorry about the helicopter right near here. I hope you can hear me OK.

What they do now, two things that are part of the ritual. They go and eat beans, which goes back to a long tradition here. Every time there's a successful launch, they have a meal of beans. They also, Wolf, take the schedule. They produce a schedule before a launch toward a scrub, a contingency schedule. And they take that schedule, they light it up and they light up cigars with that schedule that they don't have to use.

So, yes, this is the moment when they're doing their high fives -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I see they're applauding each other. They're obviously very happy.

You know what I want to do, Miles and Cady, I'm going to replay the actual launch. We'll listen to it. We'll watch it. And then we'll talk about it.

Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five, four, three, two, one and liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis to assemble the framework for the science laboratories of tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houston now controlling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houston -- Atlantis. Roll the program.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger roll, Atlantis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Atlantis' roll maneuver is complete. The orbiter is in a heads down position, on course for a 51.6 degree, 137 by 36 statute mile orbit.

All systems in good shape. The engines throttling down as Atlantis prepares to maneuver through the area of maximum dynamic pressure on the vehicle in the lower atmosphere.

Already seven miles away from the Kennedy Space Center at an altitude of five miles.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's truly an amazing -- an amazing sight.

We still have Senator Bill Nelson, himself a former astronaut, on the phone.

Are you there, Senator Nelson?

Are you at the Kennedy Space Center?

Senator Nelson?

Unfortunately I think we may have lost Senator Nelson on the phone.

But we...

NELSON: I'm here.

O'BRIEN: He's here. He's right here.

BLITZER: Is he there with you, Miles? O'BRIEN: Take him.

No, there he is. He's right here.

NELSON: He's here.

O'BRIEN: As a matter of fact, he's trying out for my job -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Good.

O'BRIEN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) right here.

BLITZER: Put him...

O'BRIEN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BLITZER: There he is.

NELSON: I don't have an earpiece, so you're going to have to tell me what he's saying.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

Wolf, he can't hear you, so I'll relay.

BLITZER: Just tell him...

O'BRIEN: What -- what's your question to Senator Nelson?

BLITZER: Just tell him what he thought as he -- as he saw that spectacular sight.

O'BRIEN: Yes, what -- what -- you were right nearby. I heard the roar of the crowd over there. I assumed you were amid that crowd.

What were you thinking as you saw all that unfold?

NELSON: Well, you know, you -- you suddenly revert to 21 years ago, on top of that orbiter. And it's this massive force. But you don't really feel the pressure until those last two minutes of the eight-and-a-half minute ascent. And then you're getting three Gs, which is not a lot, but you get a sustained three Gs for about two minutes.

And what is so dramatic -- and Deek Slaton told me this, Wolf, before I ever flew. He said, when you get to main engine cutoff, your breath is almost going to come out of you, because you've been straining under the Gs and suddenly you're in zero G instantly and your arms come up in front of you and start floating.

And that's exactly what happened. It was almost like -- ah. And there you are. And you're suddenly in zero G. Welcome to space is what Fred Gregory, the cap com said.

Welcome to space, rookies. (LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Hey, I've got to ask you...

BLITZER: I know Senator Nelson can't hear me -- but go ahead, Miles.

Ask him a question.

O'BRIEN: Well, a quick question about it, because people -- this comes up all the time. Cady admitted one time she felt it.

Did you feel ill at that moment?

This is the critical time, as they make that adjustment.

NELSON: No. But once I unstrapped, there was definitely a new environment. I suddenly thought like I was a kid standing on my head. And what's happening, I looked around and everybody's face was red and puffy. And I suddenly realized that all those bodily fluids, without the force of gravity, are shifting into the upper torso.

And so I took it real easy, chewing a lot of gum and a lot of Life Savers for the first day so that I would not provoke myself into getting sick. And by the second day, I mean, I was 100 percent ready to go.

O'BRIEN: Senator Bill Nelson, thanks for dropping by.

Good to have you.

NELSON: All right.

O'BRIEN: Good to have you.

NELSON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

It's good to see you, Cady.

O'BRIEN: All right.

COLEMAN: : (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

O'BRIEN: Cady Coleman, too.

BLITZER: All right, guys.

Miles O'Brien, Cady Coleman, Senator Bill Nelson, excellent work on -- for -- and we want to thank all of you for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Good work, indeed. We're just watching history unfold. We're going to take a quick break.

When we come back, Jack Cafferty and your e-mails.

Stay with us.

We'll be right back.

COMMERCIAL

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five, four, three, two, one and liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis, to assemble the framework for the science laboratories of tomorrow.

BLITZER: I don't care how many times you've seen it, Jack Cafferty, it's an amazing -- an amazing sight. And you think there are seven human beings on board. These are really brilliant, courageous people, I've got to tell you.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you were reading my mind. I was thinking during the break, no matter how many times you watch these space shots -- and I've watched them for 30 years, 35 years, however many years they've been doing them, it's compelling television. You can't look away from this.

And I think we all, because of the Challenger things and stuff, you hold your breath. You collectively really hold your breath until those things, you know, break out of Earth's bond and begin their climb into orbit, jettison those big rocket fuel tanks and you hear mission control say that, you know, the launch went off all right.

But it's very, very exciting. I don't care how often you watch it.

The question we asked this hour is who will the American people ultimately hold ultimately responsible for the failure of the immigration bill?

We got this from Cynthia of Pueblo, Colorado: "The American people have been telling these politicians to stop illegal immigration, get border security in place, stop giving American jobs to aliens through the H1B Visa. Thanks should go to the senators who voted to stand with the American people to block this dreadful bill."

Jenny in New York: "Bush will be held accountable. He angered his base and he got the right-wing radio hosts telling their audiences to call their members of Congress. Well, they did, and the bill went down in flames. Memo to Bush -- when all you have is your base, don't get them angry."

Frank in Virginia: "I blame the illegal immigrants, who have broken our laws. They come here, do the jobs we don't want to do, insist that they're staying, demand education, health care and that we learn to speak their language. They protest and burn our flag and then want respect. They're criminals who should be punished. Members of Congress who ignore the wishes of the citizens of the U.S. Should be sent packing at the next election."

Winston in Colorado: "Americans, like people everywhere who are facing immigration problems, will inevitably hold the immigrants responsible for the failure of just about anything. Economic migration is a worldwide phenomenon, Jack, and cannot be solved except through eradicating the wretched living conditions of those leaving their homelands in search of a better life. That's how and why we all got here."

Keith in Wisconsin: "But, of course -- Reid, Kennedy and McCain trying to play back door politics with the intelligent common sensical American public. They'd better remember this lesson in civics the next time elections roll around."

And Michael in Ellicott City, Maryland: "The folks I know personally aren't interested in blaming anyone. We're all just relieved that this bill hasn't passed."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to cnn.com/caffertyfile.

We post more of them, along with video clips of The Cafferty File, on the Internet -- Wolf, that's about it.

BLITZER: That one e-mailer said, you know, when the president alienates his base, he doesn't have a whole lot left.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: That was pretty wise.

CAFFERTY: Well, and it's true. Remember, he got the right-wing radio talk show hosts, you know, beating the drum on this thing and urging their listeners to call their senators and representatives, and these people did.

And I think maybe, for a change, the politicians were listening perhaps more to the voters than they were to the special interests and the corporations that tend to hold sway and exercise a great deal of clout and influence on issues such as this.

After all, big business is the one that wants this cheap labor in the country.

BLITZER: Have a great weekend, Jack.

CAFFERTY: You, too -- Wolf.

BLITZER: See you back here on Monday.

I'll be here Sunday on "LATE EDITION."

Among my guests, presidential candidates Governor Bill Richardson, former Governor Mike Huckabee.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Up next, Soledad O'Brien at George Washington University, a special SITUATION ROOM with the top Democratic contenders talking faith. That continues right now.

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