updated 7/9/2004 12:43:42 PM ET 2004-07-09T16:43:42

Guests: Michelle Merzi, Nichole Merzi, Charles Prestwood, Mike Melvill, Dennis Tito

ANNOUNCER:  DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT.

DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST:  The missing Marine resurfaces.  Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun shows up safely at the U.S. embassy in Beirut, a sharp contrast to these chilling images.  Plus, we‘ll hear from the woman who says Hassoun proposed to her.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Everything about him was very, very genuine, very sincere.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Tonight we‘ll have more on the mystery surrounding Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun.

Ken Lay in handcuffs, the former Enron chief facing 175 years in prison and nearly $6 million in fines.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Lay chose to conceal and distort and mislead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There‘s absolutely nothing there that would even come close to being considered criminal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Tonight, the story of one man who lost it all when Enron collapsed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES PRESTWOOD, LOST RETIREMENT SAVINGS IN ENRON COLLAPSE:  It was from rags to riches, back to rags.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Plus, meet the rocket man.  Test pilot Michael Melvill has taken the space age to new heights of glory, and he did it without the help of NASA.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL MELVILL, FIRST COMMERCIAL ASTRONAUT:  The flight was spectacular.  It really was.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  In his very first primetime interview, we‘ll hear from the man who waited for no one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELVILL:  You really do get the feeling that you‘ve touched the face of God when do you something like this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  From studio 3K in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.

NORVILLE:  And good evening, everyone.

Tonight we finally know where Marine corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun is, but there is still a big mystery surrounding what happened to him over the past two-and-a-half weeks.  The State Department today said that he is alive and well at the American embassy in Beirut, but in the past couple of weeks, there have been conflicting reports about his fate.  The 24-year-old Lebanese native disappeared from his unit in Iraq on June 20, the Marines at first saying he was on unauthorized leave, questioning whether he was a deserter.  His status was then changed to captured a week later, when he appeared on television blindfolded, with a sword brandished over his head.  The group supposedly holding him threatened to kill him within 72 hours.

Then on Saturday, a Web site reported that Hassoun had been beheaded, but then the next day, a different Web site said that he had not been killed.  Well, on Monday, an Iraqi militant group said that it was holding him in a safe place.  Meantime, NBC News has learned that the Navy is investigating whether Hassoun‘s disappearance is part of an elaborate kidnapping hoax.  And just when you thought the story couldn‘t get any stranger, his family in Tripoli, Lebanon, traded gunfire near their home today with another family who was taunting them by calling Hassoun a U.S.  agent.  At least two people were killed.

Joining me now to shed some light on the mystery of Wassef Ali Hassoun is Nichole Merzi.  She says Corporal Hassoun has asked her to marry her—marry him, and she works at her family‘s pizza parlor near Camp Pendleton, California, where Corporal Hassoun was stationed.  Also there is her mother, Michelle Merzi..

Ladies, thank you for being with us.  First of all, Michelle, you must have been quite relieved to hear the news that he is, indeed, in American hands and safe and well.

MICHELLE MERZI, NICHOLE‘S MOTHER:  I—let‘s just put it this way.  He was safe all along.  The news was already—we had peace in our heart already.  We knew he was safe.

NORVILLE:  How did you know that he was OK before the announcement today from the American officials?

MICHELLE MERZI:  Like I‘ve known from every—from the day he was put on TV to this day, I know in my heart what‘s going on.  I know he was never a deserter.  All the things going on right now and the 50,000 emotions, emotional roller-coaster the media‘s put us on, it didn‘t mean anything because we had a peace in our heart.  Now, the latest, the latest with the questioning of the Navy, that‘s all procedure.  That‘s basic procedure that the Navy, the Marine Corps, anyone does—they need to do, to know how to take care of what‘s going on.

NORVILLE:  Well, what do you think happened?

MICHELLE MERZI:  This is just...

NORVILLE:  What do you think happened, Ms. Merzi?

MICHELLE MERZI:  You know, what‘s funny is, you know, I don‘t need to think any more.  He‘s alive, and we can ask him.  And that‘s what is the beautiful thing about all of this is we don‘t have to speculate any more.  He‘s alive.  And with that in mind, that‘s—there‘s the answer.  Let‘s ask—let‘s ask him.

NORVILLE:  Well, we‘re all eager to talk to him when he‘s at a place where we can have a chance to do that.  Nichole, let me ask you, how did you meet Mr. Hassoun?

NICHOLE MERZI, CLAIMS CPL. HASSOUN PROPOSED TO HER:  I met him at Margaret Rock‘s (ph).  That‘s a dance club.

NORVILLE:  At a local dance club?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Yes.  Exactly.

NORVILLE:  And who approached whom?  You saw him?  He saw you?  How did the two of you introduce each other?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Well, he was with some other guys that I already know, and I saw them all, like, Hey, how are you, this and that.  And I approached him because he was kind of shy and off in the corner, and I‘m, like, kind of outgoing, in a way, in a sense.  And I asked him, like, Do you want to dance?  I was teaching him how to dance.

NORVILLE:  He didn‘t know how to dance?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Pretty much—well, I mean, he was just—you know how those—how guys are.  Some guys are too shy.  So I had to kind of break him down, open him up to dance because he was standing there by himself, and all his friends were dancing.  And I‘m, like, Oh, come on.  Let‘s dance and have fun.

NORVILLE:  And this was when, about last Christmastime?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Yes, around Christmastime.  I‘m not sure exactly when.

NORVILLE:  And you guys began dating at that point?

NICHOLE MERZI:  We didn‘t really date.  We just—we went on a date, and we hung out a lot with my family, my mom, my aunts, and all the other Arabic guys.  We hung out together a lot.

NORVILLE:  And that was the way you spent time together, was in large groups with your family.

NICHOLE MERZI:  Yes, exactly, and...

MICHELLE MERZI:  And his friends.

NICHOLE MERZI:  And his friends also.

NORVILLE:  And how would you describe your relationship?  He apparently has asked for your hand in marriage.  How would you describe the relationship between the two of you, Nichole?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Basically, I just feel that our relationship is basically based on comfort.  I think he felt comfortable with me, being that I‘m kind of from the same background as him.  He came to me with this, and he poured himself out to me, trusting me that I was able to take that and be friends with him.  That‘s all he really wanted was a friend, and I kind of filled that position, as well.  So that‘s pretty much what it was.

NORVILLE:  And Michelle, I gather you liked this young man because he was incredibly proper in the way he went about his—his romantic business.

MICHELLE MERZI:  His whole life, the way he presented himself, everything about this young man is a mother‘s dream come true.  To have this type of a package deal come to you for your 18-year-old daughter, and the manner and respect this young man offered my husband and I, with regards to my daughter, it was a dream come true.  Something...

NORVILLE:  And how did he do that?  Did he say, May I speak to your daughter?  May I go out with your daughter?  I mean, how did he approach you and your husband?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Oh, everything!

MICHELLE MERZI:  What he did is, after Nichole and them were dancing, they all went home by themselves.  And he approached the other two gentlemen that we knew through Marine Corps, and he said, Please help me find this girl.  Help me find this girl.  And the boys said, Don‘t you know, her parents own Spanky‘s (ph)?  So they got in their van and drove around Oceanside for two hours looking for us.  And I don‘t know how they got—couldn‘t find us because we‘re, like, not even a half a block away.  But for two hours, he wandered the streets looking for my daughter.  And then he went back home and he said again, Tell me where this Spanky‘s is. 

And then he came in the next day with the whole group, and the other two

gentlemen told me that Jaffa (ph) he was interested in Nichole.  And I said

·         being, you know, bold, I said, Now, which one of you is interested in my daughter?  Because you need to step up and quit hiding.

NORVILLE:  Right.

MICHELLE MERZI:  And he spoke up.

NORVILLE:  Let me fast forward the story a little bit.  You all met in Christmastime.  You went out as you did for a period of a few months.  And then, Nichole, I know he was shipped out, back to Iraq, where he had already done several months of service.  What did he tell you about his thoughts of going back to active duty there?

NICHOLE MERZI:  You know what?  I didn‘t even ask him.  I wasn‘t interested in that about him.  As a person, I was interested in, you know, who he was, what he enjoyed.  I didn‘t really want to ask him those kind of questions because it never entered my mind.  I pretty much—we kind of talked about happier things, more, you know, things we had in common, stuff like that.  I never asked him.  I wasn‘t really interested.

NORVILLE:  When did you last communicate with him?

NICHOLE MERZI:  I don‘t want to say.  It was in the middle of February because I—we had exchanged, like, two or three e-mails, and then I did the last one, and he never responded to it, so...

NORVILLE:  So you have not heard from him since, conservatively speaking, early March?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Exactly.

NORVILLE:  No letters, no telephone calls?

NICHOLE MERZI:  No.

NORVILLE:  No e-mails?

NICHOLE MERZI:  No.  No.  He doesn‘t have any phone number or my address.  No.

NORVILLE:  So...

NICHOLE MERZI:  All he has is my e-mail address, and he didn‘t respond.

NORVILLE:  So how close were you, then, if you haven‘t communicated in a period of several months?

NICHOLE MERZI:  NO, no.  We weren‘t close on the way that everyone‘s perceiving it.  We were not boyfriend and girlfriend, so we‘re not obviously romantically close.  We were close, however, on, like, a friendship-based, like, relationship.  I mean, he was part of my family‘s anything (ph).  He was like my brother.  He was like a really good friend. 

That‘s all I really was there to be for him.  I wasn‘t there to, you know,

be romantically involved with him.  All he really needed was someone to

talk to, to be, you know, comfortable with, like what I said.  So I wasn‘t

·         yes, I mean...

NORVILLE:  But your mother thinks that he‘s asked to you marry him.

NICHOLE MERZI:  He did ask to marry me.

MICHELLE MERZI:  You‘re misinterpreting my daughter.

(CROSSTALK)

MICHELLE MERZI:  You‘re talking to an 18-year-old who perceived the situation the way she did.

NORVILLE:  Right.

MICHELLE MERZI:  You‘re talking to a mother who has a little wisdom...

NORVILLE:  Yes, indeed.

NORVILLE:  ... and who spent many hours with this young man.  He was too shy to approach Nichole, and when he did, they spoke of happy times.  This young man just came from Iraq.  He spent one year in the Marine Corps.  He came back one month, 24 hours summons to come to Camp Pendleton, and left in two months again back for another year in Iraq.  This kid wanted his intentions known before he went the second time.  He wanted me to know that his—what he sees in my daughter and their future was something he wanted me to know he wanted to be a part of.  He saw my husband and I as possibly a lifestyle that he could accept and take and have for his own.  He understood that it‘s going to take a very strong, educated woman to help him make it through this country, to get what he needs to get and where he needs to get it.  He understood time was on both of their hands.  They‘re both young.  And Nichole saw it as she sees all the other Marines here.  They‘re going—they‘re putting their lives on the line.

NORVILLE:  Well, let me ask you...

MICHELLE MERZI:  They know...

NORVILLE:  Let me just stop you there because you‘re talking about very serious sort of life plans, and yet Mr. Hassoun‘s brother is quoted in “The Salt Lake Tribune” as saying that his brother, who lived and attended college in Utah before enlisting, is married and his wife lives in Lebanon.  Are you aware...

MICHELLE MERZI:  Is that a quote?

NORVILLE:  Yes, ma‘am, from Sami...

MICHELLE MERZI:  Is that a quote?

NORVILLE:  ... from Sami Hassoun, his brother.

MICHELLE MERZI:  Are you sure?

NORVILLE:  Pretty positive.

MICHELLE MERZI:  Are you sure?

NORVILLE:  Yes, ma‘am.  It‘s a quote in “The Salt Lake Tribune”...

MICHELLE MERZI:  I‘m going to tell you...

NORVILLE:  ... and it‘s also quoted in “The Marine Times.”

MICHELLE MERZI:  I‘m going to tell you, don‘t trust the media.  I‘m going to tell you, don‘t...

NICHOLE MERZI:  They said I was married.

MICHELLE MERZI:  I‘m going to tell you, don‘t take that (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  Leave it where it‘s at, and don‘t put it in.

NORVILLE:  You don‘t believe he‘s married?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Well...

MICHELLE MERZI:  I‘m going to tell you, don‘t take that and put that -

·         don‘t use it.

NORVILLE:  So you don‘t believe he‘s married.

MICHELLE MERZI:  It‘s kind of like—it‘s kind of like the beheading. 

It‘s kind of like the desertion.

NICHOLE MERZI:  Exactly.  I don‘t...

MICHELLE MERZI:  It‘s kind of like the Navy is investigating.  You‘re speculating.

NORVILLE:  Well, I‘m—I‘m simply...

MICHELLE MERZI:  Do not...

NORVILLE:  ... quoting what‘s in a published report.  But let me ask you, in kind of wrapping all of this up, why do you think all of this confusion has surrounded this young man that you got to know the beginning of this year?

NICHOLE MERZI:  Because he‘s not white.  Because he‘s not white.

NORVILLE:  You think...

MICHELLE MERZI:  Maybe from the very beginning, when his picture showed up, he was labeled deserter, of Lebanese descent, and he‘s Muslim.  What happened to he‘s a Marine in this United States of ours?  What happened to a missing Marine?  What—we Marines don‘t call each other deserters.  They don‘t do it.  They need each other.  Each person in the Marine Corps is a team.  You cannot cause any friction amongst any piece of that puzzle in that Marine Corps to making something happen that could explode.

NORVILLE:  Right.

MICHELLE MERZI:  Now, if you put in the minds of any Marine at this time, fighting in a war, that this predominantly Arabic-speaking, and your interpreters have to interpret for you Arabic, and all of a sudden, you‘re putting in those Marines‘ minds, Hey, they‘re doubles, don‘t trust them, you have made a big headache.

NORVILLE:  So you...

MICHELLE MERZI:  You have made the biggest...

NORVILLE:  You think all of this came along because he‘s of Arabic descent, he is a Lebanese national who emigrated to this country, and you think that‘s at the heart of all of this?

MICHELLE MERZI:  He‘s an American citizen.

NORVILLE:  Exactly, an American citizen who came from Lebanon.

NICHOLE MERZI:  So treat him like an American citizen!

(CROSSTALK)

MICHELLE MERZI:  So cut the Lebanese national because my daughter‘s Lebanese.

NORVILLE:  All right.

MICHELLE MERZI:  And my daughter—my daughter can have dual citizenship.  She can be American and Lebanese.

NORVILLE:  And we‘ll leave it right there.  Nichole, Michelle Merzi, the mystery continues.  Thanks for being with us.

ANNOUNCER:  Coming up: He was once the top man in one of the nation‘s biggest corporations.  Now, Kenneth lay‘s in handcuffs.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNETH LAY, FORMER ENRON CEO:  Not only are we ready to go to trial, but we are anxious to prove my innocence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  Tonight, the shocking riches-to-rags story of one former Enron employee when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAY:  As CEO of the company, I accept responsibility for Enron‘s collapse, as I‘ve said before.  However, that does mean I knew everything that happened at Enron, and I firmly reject any notion that I engaged in any wrongful or criminal activity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  That was Enron founder and former CEO Ken Lay shortly after he pled not guilty today to charges of taking part in a multi-billion-dollar conspiracy to deceive the public, company shareholders and the government.  A short time earlier, the one-time head of one of the country‘s biggest companies was brought to court in handcuffs.  He was charged with wire fraud, securities fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy and making false statements to banks.  He faces up to 175 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.

Enron‘s collapse in 2001 cost investors billions of dollars, put thousands of employees out of work, and wiped out the retirement savings of many of them.  Charles Prestwood worked at Enron for 33 years.  He retired with stocks that were worth $1.3 million.  Four months later, Enron crashed, leaving him with $8,000 for his retirement.

Charles Prestwood, we welcome you.  Thank you for being with us today.

CHARLES PRESTWOOD, LOST RETIREMENT SAVINGS IN ENRON COLLAPSE:  Thank you, ma‘am.  It‘s an honor to be on your show.

NORVILLE:  Well, you‘re very kind to say that.  You worked there for so long.  What were your thoughts as you saw Mr. Lay led off in handcuffs this morning?

PRESTWOOD:  Well, ma‘am, I just thought we were just one step closer to justice, one step closer of hearing and finding out what the truth is, you know, because it stands just like I‘ve said since November of 2001, that anybody—I hope and pray that anybody, whoever they may be, that‘s involved in the destruction or the downfall of Enron would be brought to justice, and if need be, put behind bars.

NORVILLE:  As you know, Mr. Lay has always maintained that it was a big company, that he had executives in there running different aspects of it for him, and that he couldn‘t possibly know what was going on.  Do you believe that?

PRESTWOOD:  No, ma‘am.  If it was like what I heard him say about that

·         in other words, he needed some more help up there to help everybody get along.

NORVILLE:  He‘s looking at 175 years in prison, if he were convicted on all the charges that he was indicted on today.  Given what you‘ve suffered, given what so many of the tens of thousands of Enron employees have gone through, does that sound like a just punishment to you, were he convicted?

PRESTWOOD:  Ma‘am, it‘s not for me to pass judgment on the man, but a 12-man jury will do that.  And whatever the jury comes up with, I‘ll agree with 100 percent.

NORVILLE:  You testified about two-and-a-half years ago when Congress was looking into all of this, and this is what you had to say about justice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - DECEMBER 18, 2001)

PRESTWOOD:  I can tell you without pulling punches something stinks here, and it really does.  You know, there are people at Enron who made millions selling Enron stock, encouraging the retirees and encouraging the Enron employees to Just hang on to it, it‘s going to get better.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Loyalty was such a big thing at Enron, and the company was such a big cheerleader for its own stock.  Do you think they knew what was going on and you guys were just patsies?

PRESTWOOD:  Ma‘am, they had to, the way I believe.  In other words, I don‘t see how—it was too obvious.  I don‘t see how that it could be any other way, you know?  But when they told us be sure and hang on to your stock, at the end of next year it will be worth $125, and things like that, naturally, we believed what they were talking about, you know?  Come to find out, they were just talking a lot of false information.

NORVILLE:  And how frustrating was it for you, as a company shareholder, when things started going south in the fall of 2001, private investors, people out there who were watching this program, could have sold their shares, but you all were blocked from it?  What was that like, watching the stock value go down and knowing that your retirement was going with it?

PRESTWOOD:  Ma‘am, that‘s one of the worst feelings that a person will ever have in their lives, is when they‘re seeing everything that they‘d worked for and saved all through their life, you know, just seeing it just disappear, and while the top executives who were selling their stock.  You know, in other words, they were getting out while the getting was good.  And we didn‘t have a clue that there was anything wrong with the corporation because if we done—if we had of, we‘d have jumped ship, too.  But we didn‘t know, you know.

NORVILLE:  At his press conference today, Ken Lay said that this was a tragic day for him and his family.  He also talked about the tragedy it was for the many workers, and basically, that there were a few bad eggs in the basket.  This is what he had to say, and then I want your reaction to it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAY:  The vast majority, I mean, being 99-plus percent of our employees, were honest, hard-working people and doing exactly what, in fact, you‘d expect those people to do.  But it is amazing the amount of damage that can be done by very few people that are doing things that, in fact, tend to self-enrich them but also create chaos in a company the size of Enron.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  He doesn‘t seem to include himself in that group of few people.  Does that anger you, sir?

PRESTWOOD:  Well, yes, ma‘am, because I don‘t believe it at all, you know.  But he did tell the truth there at one time, when he said it just taken—all it taken was just a very few people to completely destroy the seventh largest corporation in America, you know.  And that part of it I think was true, but the rest of it, no, I don‘t think he—I think he‘s trying to put himself in the wrong category.

NORVILLE:  Down in Texas—I‘m from Georgia, and we tend to do things a lot the way they do in Texas, so folks have ways of dealing with people when they want to mete out their own justice.  If you had five minutes with Ken Lay, what would you say or do, sir?

PRESTWOOD:  Ma‘am, I‘ll tell you what.  I would hate to be confronted with that because I would try to—I just don‘t know what I‘d do, you know.  The things that would happen—in other words, I‘m hoping that I would be able to control myself and hold—and hold my anger back.  But in other words, after—you take after a period of so long, when you are so confronted with knowing that you had your bills paid, knowing that you had enough money to take care of you the rest of your life, you know, by managing it real close, you know, I just really—it would be—it would be real exciting to find out what I would have to talk to him about in five minutes.

NORVILLE:  Well, I appreciate your time today, sir.  You‘ve been very kind to be with us.  Charles Prestwood, We wish you well, sir.

PRESTWOOD:  Ma‘am, I thank you, ma‘am, and it‘s been an honor to be on your show.

NORVILLE:  Thank you.

PRESTWOOD:  And I hope to be back.

NORVILLE:  All righty.

ANNOUNCER:  Up next: Michael Melvill boldly did what no civilian has done before.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELVILL:  You begin to believe that, Wow, should I really be doing this?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  Melvill‘s amazing story when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  It‘s not every day you get to meet somebody who has made history.  Tonight, you are. 

My next guest made history a couple of weeks ago piloting the world‘s first privately built spaceship.  There it goes, SpaceShipOne lifting off from California‘s Mojave Desert carrying 53-year-old business executive and test pilot Mike Melvill.  And it has changed the future of spaceflight forever, this craft rocketing 62.5 miles above the Earth, the $20 million mission which was financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and designed by aerospace whiz Burt Rutan.  It has opened the door to space tourism. 

When Mike landed 90 minutes later, he called the flight a—quote—

“near religious experience.”

Joining me now in his first prime-time interview is SpaceShipOne‘s pilot, Mike Melvill. 

Good evening, sir.  It‘s nice to see you. 

MIKE MELVILL, FIRST COMMERCIAL ASTRONAUT:  Good evening, Deborah. 

Thank for having me. 

NORVILLE:  How cool was this flight for you? 

MELVILL:  It was very cool.  It was ultra cool. 

(LAUGHTER)

NORVILLE:  Everybody knows—go ahead, sorry.  Go ahead. 

MELVILL:  It was pretty scary at times, but it was very, very exciting and challenging, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. 

NORVILLE:  I will bet you did.  And what‘s kind of nice is that ship is right behind you all in one piece looking just as spiffy after its mission as it did before. 

Explain to us why this is so significant, that a private citizen piloted a privately built spacecraft to the outer edges of Earth‘s atmosphere. 

MELVILL:  You know, for many years, the government has been taking our tax dollars and spending billions and billions and billions of dollars designing spacecraft like the shuttle.  The Russians have been doing it with their Soyuz aircraft.  And a few selected military type astronauts have been flying those things, but no civilians have ever been allowed to do that.

And most of those guys fly anywhere on autopilot, and in our case, we fly it just by hand.  There is no computer guiding this airplane.  It‘s just me flying it with my hands and feet and my eyes.  And you know, after spending only a small amount of money, we were able to go to essentially of space and experience weightlessness and look at the incredible view of the Earth below and the black sky above, and for me it was just the experience of a lifetime. 

NORVILLE:  I can imagine it was. 

And we‘re looking at footage, we just saw you take off as you were ferried off, and then explain to us what happens.  Now we‘re seeing video of you hovering above Earth.  We can see the curvature of the Earth.  And I guess you‘re about to let go from the White Knight that ferried you up there. 

MELVILL:  No, that picture that I‘m looking at, anyway, is up at 62.5 miles.  We‘re weightless at the point that I‘m looking at, and I‘m just looking down at the Earth and rolling it over on its back and looking at the ground and back up at the sky. 

But I do—I drop off some hooks that hold me on to the bottom of the White Knight, the gut-wrenching drop, and then you‘re on the rocket motor and fire the rocket motor and then you‘re just along for the ride.  You‘re fighting for your life to keep it going straight uphill. 

NORVILLE:  What was the scariest part for you? 

MELVILL:  There was a little scary thing that happened up at the top. 

I had a trim motor that moved, horizontal tails that failed to operate.  And when I hit the trim button, only one of them moved and I knew at that point that I couldn‘t come back unless I could put that back in the right spot. 

So I spent about a minute working very hard trying to get it back to the center. 

NORVILLE:  And you mentioned that you went up there and one of the things that really makes this mission different from the typical NASA mission, it was you, the stick and no computer, and that‘s where your experience as a pilot really comes into play.  You‘ve done over 5,000 record-setting missions.  Explain to us why it was so critical that you have that pilot instinct at work as you were going about this flight. 

MELVILL:  Well, you know, without an autopilot, it‘s the pilot in the loop only.  You push the stick, it moves the push rod and moves the flying surface.  And there‘s no computer overcontrolling or correcting any overcontrolling a pilot does, so it takes some experience to keep it straight, keep it on course.

And I think they chose me because I have a lot of experience.  And I‘m glad they did, though, because it‘s sure been a fun ride and the aftermath has been really exciting. 

NORVILLE:  Oh, I‘m sure it must be. 

There was, as you said, one little problem.  And I gather it had something to do with the solid rocket in the fuel, where there was a big boon and for a moment you didn‘t know what had happened. 

MELVILL:  That‘s correct.  There was a loud explosion and a large vibration as part of the fuel that‘s in the rocket motor went out through the nozzle and jammed the nozzle for a split second and then the pressure built up and blew it out.

So there was a very loud explosion, a lot of shaking going on, and I wasn‘t sure I hadn‘t lost part of the aircraft at that point.  So that was scary for me. 

NORVILLE:  And were you in communication with the ground while this was going on? 

MELVILL:  Yes, I was, and I reported those things to the mission control guys, and they didn‘t see any anomalies on their instruments, so we just pressed on and hoped for the best, and luckily nothing went wrong.  It was just something weird we hadn‘t seen happen before with that rocket motor. 

NORVILLE:  And while you were up there, as you said, you‘re 62.5 miles over Earth, you‘re looking down, you‘re weightless, and you did something that you thought might kind of show what it‘s like to be in a weightless environment.  What was it? 

MELVILL:  It was just a fun thing I did.  I took a bag of M&M candy with me and took them out of my pocket when I was at the apogee and released them in front of my face and just let them float around like little satellites for a while.

And I thought that would show the folks at home that, yes, we really are at zero-G and it‘s obvious there‘s no gravity at that point. 

NORVILLE:  There‘s no gravity at that point, but there sure is when you‘re coming back.  We all know the terrible thing that happened when the shuttle was coming back into the Earth‘s atmosphere.  What did you experience as you were coming back in to the Earth‘s atmosphere? 

MELVILL:  Coming back definitely is a frightening experience, because the aircraft builds up speed at a rate that I was not ready for.  It goes so fast so quickly, and you strike the atmosphere going an at enormous speed, at Mach 3, three times the speed of sound.  And you can hear this horrendous hurricane wind blowing as you come back into the atmosphere, and you just sit there hoping and praying that nothing blows off, because it‘s important to have all the parts when you come back into the landing pattern. 

Luckily, nothing happened.  Burt and the engineers knew what they were doing and the airplane was built structurally to deal with those kind of loads, came through the supersonic barrier back down and after that it‘s just an easy ride back home. 

NORVILLE:  Yes, I can‘t imagine how sweaty you must have been as you were coming through there. 

We‘re going to take a short break.  More in just a moment with Mike Melvill, the first man to pilot a private spacecraft. 

Stay with us. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Could the first manned commercial spaceflight be the beginning of space tourism?  We‘ll hear from the pilot and the world‘s first space tourist next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Five, four, three, two, one. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A perfect landing. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  A cool landing, a landing less than three weeks ago when the first privately built spaceship touched back down in the California desert. 

Mike Melvill is the pilot.  This is his first prime-time interview. 

Sir, there were about 27,000 people there waiting in the desert waiting for you to touch down.  What was it like to be under the microscope so intensely? 

MELVILL:  Well, it was pretty unusual for me.  I‘m an ordinary guy and I had never experienced anything like that.  It was a terrific thrill to turn on to my base and then onto final approach and look down and just see thousands of cars down there.  I‘d never seen so many cars parked at Mojave Airport.

And it took me a little bit to realize how many people there really were watching. 

NORVILLE:  You‘re the first private pilot to be given astronaut wings.  Explain to us why it‘s so significant for this first flight and that you got to be the one to do it. 

MELVILL:  You know, no privately funded effort had ever gone into space in the history of the world.  So all of the space travel has been done by highly paid, taxpaying government countries like China, Russia and the U.S., and so no one had done this before.  We were the first to do it, and I was very honored and very lucky to be chosen to make that flight. 

And then to be presented with astronaut wings at the end of it was really the cream on the pie.  I was very, very proud and happy to do that. 

NORVILLE:  I know before the flight, you had sort of a departure dinner with your wife, your family and also your first flight instructor.  What did he say to you before you took off on this historic mission? 

MELVILL:  Well, the same thing he did when he was teaching me to fly, just be cool.  There‘s no pressure.  Just do what you always do.  You know how to do it.  Don‘t let anybody fluster you and just go ahead and do what you know how to do.  And that‘s exactly what I did. 

NORVILLE:  And I know you always have a good luck charm that you wear with most of your flights.  Did you wear it on this one? 

MELVILL:  I certainly did.  And I‘ve got it on tonight for you to see. 

NORVILLE:  Oh, cool.  It‘s a horseshoe. 

MELVILL:  It‘s a little horseshoe, a silver horseshoe that I gave to my wife when she was only 16 years old, and it‘s a very special thing for us.  She pins it on me for every flight.  And, at the end of the flight, she takes it off, and it‘s brung very good luck to me. 

NORVILLE:  Indeed it has.  You know the aviator‘s prayer as well as anybody.  When you were up there 62.5 miles above Earth, did you feel that you had truly slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God? 

MELVILL:  I really did.  When I said that, I meant that from the bottom of my heart.  That‘s exactly what I felt.  Looking at a black sky in the middle of the day was a very strange thing for me. 

NORVILLE:  Was it a religious experience of sorts? 

MELVILL:  Yes, it really was.  I‘m not religious, but it did feel that way.  If ever I‘ve felt that, that was the time. 

NORVILLE:  Well, it‘s something the rest of us just sit on the ground and we look up at the sky and we look at the video of things that you‘ve done, but this mission may have opened the door so that we can do more than that. 

Do you think that space travel will be something that happens in our viewers‘ lifetime? 

MELVILL:  Yes, I do.  I think within five to 10 years there will be many companies doing this sort of thing and taking people for rides in suborbital flight, where they can experience the view and experience the zero-G for three to five minutes and get the incredible sight of the Earth below and begin to realize what this planet is that we live on, how beautiful it is, and how we should treat it better than we do. 

But this is going to start a new industry.  It will be a small industry to start with, but there will be other people besides us doing this.  And later on, we intend to get into orbital flight.  Then we will be able to give you a ride all the way around the world, Deborah. 

NORVILLE:  All right.  Well, on that note, we‘re going to just take a short break. 

When we come back, more on the possibility of you and me and everybody watching traveling in space, more with Mike Melvill.  And we‘ll be joined by the world‘s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, who paid his way into space on a Russian spacecraft.  His story in just a moment. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Mike Melvill has certainly earned a place in the record books for becoming the first astronaut to pilot a private spacecraft, but before Melvill, there was millionaire businessman Dennis Tito.  In 2001, he paid an estimated $20 million to the Russians and there was able to hitch a ride to spend eight days in space, six of them as a guest on board the International Space Station. 

And joining our discussion now is Dennis Tito.  Also still with us is Mike Melvill. 

Mr. Tito, as I welcome to you our discussion, I have to ask you what your thoughts were as you heard of Mike Melvill‘s flight. 

DENNIS TITO, FIRST PAYING SPACE TOURIST:  Well, I actually was present during the flight, and it was quite exciting to watch the flight from beginning to end and to see that it was successful and to congratulate Mike when he landed.  It was a great thrill for me. 

NORVILLE:  Explain to us.  You were able to get into space basically by buying an extremely expensive ticket.  What‘s the significance from where you sit that a private group funded by Mr. Allen was able to do this? 

TITO:  I think it‘s highly significant because having a few individuals who can afford to pay a lot of money to go to space is not enough.  Space should be available to the general public. 

And I think with the flight of SpaceShipOne, it proves that commercial spaceflight for humans is possible at a price probably around that of the cost of an SUV.

NORVILLE:  So, for $40,000, $50,000, $60,000, the average person could hitch a ride and experience what Mr. Melvill experienced a couple weeks ago? 

MELVILL:  Well, I think that will be available if the regulations are changed to allow that. 

NORVILLE:  And, Mike, your group was able to do this from concept to completion of mission for about $20 million.  I know you‘re in competition for something called the X Prize, which is designed to encourage other people to get involved in the same way that you did.  Explain to us how that works. 

MELVILL:  The X Prize is a bunch of money, $10 million, that‘s been set up by a consortium of businessmen, and there are a lot of teams out there right now trying to win that money.  Unfortunately, we‘re going to win it, so they might as well give it up now.

(LAUGHTER)

MELVILL:  And what you have to do, you have to fly to above 100 kilometers twice with the same vehicle in the space of two weeks.  And we plan on doing that towards the end of September this year. 

NORVILLE:  So will you be going back up a second time or it will another individual from the team? 

MELVILL:  I don‘t know.  I‘m hoping to encourage another individual to do it, but I‘ll be standing by in case they need me. 

NORVILLE:  One of the things that I‘m curious about, Mike, is, how does the $20 million you spent compare with $20 million, say, spent by NASA? 

MELVILL:  Well, you know, I think NASA, when they spend $20 million, they maybe get the result of a paper study.  When we spent $20 million, we got a launch aircraft, a spaceship, a rocket motor, and a flight simulator for that $20 million, and we did it all of the flight testing for the same amount of money. 

NORVILLE:  And so, Mr. Tito, if private investment comes in here, it can clearly do the job in terms of creating the mission, creating the model and then creating a workable unit and executing the plan, but you have to have government regulation that allows you to do that.  You can‘t just go up and fly to space, can you? 

TITO:  Well, exactly. 

This flight was an experimental flight, but in order to charge and have commercial flights, you need special certification.  For an airliner, that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, so there has to be an exception for this new industry.  And that legislation is currently in Congress. 

NORVILLE:  And, Mike Melvill, how is that being received, this push to try to open the doors legislatively so that more people can do what your company and your colleagues have done? 

MELVILL:  We‘ve been very encouraged to see how enthusiastic people have been at AST, FAA.  Those people have encouraged us all the way.  They‘ve been great.  They‘ve been right behind us.  And everyone is working towards getting this done, as Mr. Tito said.  And I think it will successfully be done. 

NORVILLE:  And so you think, in five or 10 years, I could take you up on that offer to spin me around the globe a couple of times? 

MELVILL:  I really think we could do that. 

NORVILLE:  And, Dennis Tito, what would that be like?  You went into deep space.  You were on the International Space Station for six days.  But it‘s not just buying the ticket and getting on the plane.  There‘s a physical aspect to all of this and you had to train to do this.  What physically is involved in traveling to space? 

TITO:  Well, there is certainly the issue of weightlessness, which one has to get used to for a prolonged period of time.  There‘s also the heavy G-loads.  Mike experienced, as I understand it, five G‘s on reentry, and one has to be physically fit to withstand that. 

NORVILLE:  And what does that feel like, Mike?  If you weigh, say, 200 pounds, that‘s equivalent to -- 5 G‘s is how much pressure on you? 

MELVILL:  Well, then if you weigh 200 pounds, at 5 G‘s, your body weighs 1,000 pounds, and so your heart has to pump blood through a 1,000-pound body for however long you‘re in that G condition.  And Dennis had to go through the kind of training I did, too.  You can‘t just go out and do that.  You‘d black out.  You have to train and build up a tolerance to that kind of G-load. 

NORVILLE:  And yet you think it‘s possible for enough people to be able to get themselves in physical condition so that it‘s profitable for a company to go into this kind of business? 

MELVILL:  Yes, I do.  I think, if you‘re reasonably fit, you can easily learn to tolerate the G.  You just need to practice at it, and it‘s just like exercise.  If you do it enough, and you build up gradually, you can eventually tolerate 7 G‘s.  So it‘s not impossible.  Even at my age, I‘ve been able to do that easily. 

NORVILLE:  And, Dennis, take us down a notch from the joyride level to a practical application.  If we‘re able to send people up to space for tourist rides so they can see what it looks like from 100 kilometers up, what would we be able to do just in terms of travel getting from, say, New York to Tokyo in a matter of time? 

TITO:  Well, eventually, there will be a space plane capability to take you that distance in less than an hour, but that‘s a long way off because the vehicle that would be required to attain the velocity for that long of a trip would be much larger and would undergo a lot more development. 

NORVILLE:  All right.  Well, we‘re going to let that be the last word, but this is a fascinating discussion.  The name is Mike Melvill, the first private pilot to go into space.  And I bet it‘s going to be inscribed in books right there alongside Alan Shepard, the first American to go in space. 

Mike, congratulations on your mission and give our best wishes to all of your other team members. 

MELVILL:  Thank you very much, Deborah.  It‘s been great. 

NORVILLE:  And, Dennis Tito, it‘s great to see you and thank you again for reliving some of the memories of your time in space.  We appreciate that as well. 

TITO:  Yes, a pleasure to be here. 

NORVILLE:  Thank you. 

And if you all watching would like to know more about civilians trying to head into space or just know more about how SpaceShipOne works, you can find some really nifty interactive presentations linked to our Web page.  And that address is NORVILLE.MSNBC.com. 

When we come back, they‘re rough.  They‘re tough.  Nothing phases them.  So why are they all in group therapy?  The heavy metal band crying out for help—next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Thanks for watching tonight. 

Coming up tomorrow night, a family that is breaking apart, growing in different directions, alcohol a big part of the problem.  It sounds like a dysfunctional family in need of therapy.  Take a look.  Yes, who would have guessed the band Metallica is going into therapy to help all of them get along and stay together?  What‘s even more surprising, Metallica let filmmakers make a movie about it.  Tomorrow night, all four band members join me for an exclusive interview about what they‘ve learned in therapy. 

That‘s it for now.  I‘m Deborah Norville.  Thanks for watching. 

Up next, Joe Scarborough heads up to Kerry country to learn what people in the senator‘s home state think about the presidential hopeful.  SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY from Boston is next. 

We‘ll see you tomorrow. 

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2004 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2004 FDCH e-Media, Inc. (f/k/a/ Federal Document Clearing House Inc., eMediaMillWorks, Inc.), ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and FDCH e-Media, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,