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Richard Branson Heads to Space Sunday on Rocket-Powered Plane; Olympic Hurdles, No Fans, State of Emergency, Rising Infection; 14- Year-Old Girl is First African-American to Win National Spelling Bee. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired July 9, 2021 - 10:30   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. So $25 million to invest in voting rights, I mean, to quote The Untouchables, I mean, is this bringing a knife to a gun fight here? I mean, is this going to make a difference?

JAIME HARRISON, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Well, Jim, that is $25 million on top of $20 million that I announced about three months ago in order to put boots on the ground to work for voter protection across this country and that is on top of another $23 million that we have in terms of strengthening our state party operations across this country, almost $70 million focused on making sure that every American, not every Democrat, but every American gets the opportunity to vote in this country.

We know, objectively speaking, this is no hyperbole that Republicans are trying to make it much more difficult for people to vote. And this is not just a one dimensional approach. In addition to this, we are also fighting in the courtrooms. We're also fighting in statehouses. We are also fighting in the halls of Congress right now. So this is (INAUDIBLE).

SCIUTTO: You are, but you're losing -- you're losing on each of those fronts. You can't get voting rights to this point through even get a Democratic majority for that. The Supreme Court just gutted another section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which is going to affect cases in courts, make it harder to prove, right, that those are racially- motivated. What is the strategy and response?

HARRISON: Well, the strategy and response, Jim, is, listen, we saw what happened in Georgia in 2018. When Stacey Abrams lost in 2018, there wasn't a whole lot of changes in terms of legislature. Actually, they started to purge more voters. But what happened in that state? They decided to work and make sure that they got more people registered to vote, that they educated the voters, that they mobilized voters and they got them to the polls and protected those voters.

And guess what happened in 2020? We won the presidency in Georgia and we also won and picked up two seats in the United States Senate.

And so this is not an all of the above approach. We have got to do it in every way that we possibly can and the DNC announcement yesterday was just adding to the efforts that is taking place across this country.

SCIUTTO: Listen, don't want to underestimate the importance of grassroots efforts. I mean, as you rightly state, that made a difference in Georgia post-2018. But you do know the impact in the courts right up to the Supreme Court. And I wonder, a lot of meetings with the Joe Manchins and the Kyrsten Sinemas of the world to get them onboard, not just with passing VRA or some version of it but also with reforming the filibuster. Did this latest Supreme Court decision move them? I mean, is that dead on arrival or there a path forward?

HARRISON: No. I still believe that there's a path forward. I think the president and the vice president, Leader Schumer still believes there's a path forward. And there are discussions that are being taken place in the Senate Democratic Caucus about what and how they move forward on these efforts.

But we can't just stay in place and just wait on those discussions. Time is something in politics that you don't get back. You can raise more money but you don't get time back. And so we have got to make sure that we are prepared on all fronts to keep this ball moving forward.

And so we'll let the discussions happen in the Senate, and we'll move forward, I believe that the Senate Democrats will get something done on voter rights, this cycle. But in addition, the DNC has to be well- prepared to make sure our people are registered, that they're educated, they mobilize and that we protect them once they get to the polls.

SCIUTTO: Key to that, might be, it might be a necessity, is somehow eliminating or reforming the filibuster. I spoke with Florida Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy yesterday. I asked her about that. Here is her answer and I want you to get your response.


REP. STEPHANIE MURPHY (D-FL): We can't play by their rules. And that is what the Republicans have done in the past, is that they've changed the system because they don't have good values or good ideas to run on. Democrats are different. And I think that if we take our case to the American people, we'll be able to make progress on the issues that matter so much.


SCIUTTO: I just wonder if you are concerned that that is pie in the sky thinking, that you've got to -- I don't know if play dirty is the right word, but you have got to address, for instance, the filibuster if you truly believe that VRA still has a path.

HARRISON: Well, listen, I think that our democracy is on the line. We have got to play hard ball. I'm in full agreement. If you watch me on Twitter, you know that I don't mince my words as it relates to what Republicans are doing right now. They are trying to steal elections each and every day. You all know it. The press report on it all the time. They are literally-- look at what they're doing in Arizona. It is a clown show right now. And are we America or are we Russia? In essence, they're trying to even impact who can count the votes once they've been cast.


And so this is an all of the above approach. We've got to do every single thing that we can to protect our democracy. And that is not protecting it for the Democratic Party, it is for all Americans. It is sad see what the party of Lincoln has turned into, more of a party of Putin.

SCIUTTO: Jaime Harrison, thanks for taking the time this morning.

HARRISON: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Ahead, Richard Branson set to travel to space this weekend, beating out fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos, by just a few days. Though there are questions, is he making it all the way to space? We're going to have the latest on the trip, next.


SCIUTTO: This weekend, Richard Branson will attempt to take one of his Virgin Galactic rocket-powered planes to the edge of space.


If Branson succeeds, he will beat fellow billionaire space baron Jeff Bezos by just nine days. The former Amazon CEO will make his own attempt with his company, Blue Origin, on July 20th.

CNN Innovation and Space Correspondent Rachel Crane joins me now. Rachel, mano a mano, the space race is really taking off, if I could say that.

RACHEL CRANE, CNN INNOVATION AND SPACE CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Jim. I mean, the optics here do seem to suggest that Branson was trying to beat Bezos, but Branson telling me he does not see this as a race nor does any member of the Virgin Galactic team, that this accelerated timeline was the result of an updated FAA license, allowing Virgin Galactic to fly space flight participants, in addition to what the company said was a flawless test flight that happened just a few weeks ago, that that is behind this accelerated timeline. And nobody is more excited about this than Richard Branson himself. Take a listen to what he had to say.


RICHARD BRANSON, FOUNDER, VIRGIN GALACTIC: I'm going up in, as some, to test the customer experience. And I'm just going to enjoy every single minute of it. It is something that, I think, millions and millions out there would want to take my seat. And I'm going to enjoy every second from the beginning to the end.


CRANE: Jim, Branson went on to even invite Jeff Bezos to this upcoming space flight scheduled for this Sunday.

Now, Branson's objective on this flight is to test the astronaut experience and a large part of that is the training. That is what Richard Branson has been doing the last few days here at Space Port America, taking notes on things that his future astronauts, there are 600 of them that have signed up, what that experience will be like, trying to make changes and make sure it is the best experience possible. Jim?

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching. Rachel Crane, thank you so much.

Here with me now is retired NASA Astronaut Leroy Chiao. He has performed six space walks, just six of them, logged over 229 days in space. Good to have you on this morning. Thanks for taking the time.

LEROY CHIAO, RETIRED NASA ASTRONAUT: You bet, great to be with you.

SCIUTTO: So, big picture, I want to ask you, as a NASA astronaut, I mean, do you think space tourism, which is where both of the businesses are heading to some degree, but for the near future, reserved for just the very wealthiest of people, right, we're talking about millions of dollars a ticket, I mean, is that good for space exploration?

CHIAO: I think it is. It raised a lot of awareness and the general public on space exploration and space flight. And so, yes, I think it really is good and it is a natural evolution of how we started. So, NASA, of course, developed with the contractors rocket engines, rocket spacecraft and now we're at a point where we're starting to commercialize those things. And so it's kind of a natural evolution and it's taking a little longer than a lot of us have expected or desired. But I'm glad to see that this component, this space tourism component of commercial space is starting.

SCIUTTO: Space is hard, as they say, there are a lot of safety challenges to get over. That goes with every -- whether a government or private flight. When you look at these based on what you know, I mean, are they safe at this point, these kinds of trips?

CHIAO: Sure. I think safety is a relative thing, right? So you want to manage your risk as best as you can. Any time you're putting energy, so much energy into a vehicle it's going into space, you're going to be taking some risks.

Now, and it is not without having had issues, in 2014, of course, Virgin Galactic, did have an accident. Unfortunately, a test pilot was killed during a flight test. That turned to be due to pilot error. And so I'm sure there was some redesigned and testing to make sure that maybe the system was more robust and mistakes like that were less likely to happen.

And so, yes, I think the fact that Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are getting on their own vehicles after their flight test programs is a big confidence-builder for the public.

SCIUTTO: As we've been talking, we're showing there the flight path, in effect, of Virgin Galactic. So, help us resolve a dispute here. Virgin Galactic's flight does not go into orbit. It goes up to the edge of space but not above what is known as the Karman line at 62 miles. Is it a space flight, in your view?

CHIAO: Well, it depends on your definition. So, back in the '50s, when we were flying X-15s and we had Air Force pilots flying them above 50 miles, the FAA and the government, U.S. government defined space -- the edge of space as 50 miles. Some years later, the International Consortium decided that 100 kilometers was more fitting. So the so-called Von Karman line is now officially at 100 kilometers, which works up to 62 miles.


And so in my eyes, yes, of course, if you fly 50 miles or 62 miles, you're in space. I mean, you're not going to notice the difference between those 12 miles.

Neither go of these vehicles go into the orbit, by the way. They touch space and then come right back down, which is why they are so short.

SCIUTTO: Understood. Listen, I would take it. I would take it in a second. Just very briefly, do they get a little bit of -- they get a little bit of weightlessness, right, at that level, where Virgin Galactic is going?

CHIAO: Absolutely. And once they get into orbit and they hit what we call the apogee of their -- the very top of their flight profile, then they'll get a little bit of zero G. as if he fall back down and start entering the atmosphere again.

SCIUTTO: Understood. Well, Leroy Chiao, I remain forever green with jealousy of the experiences you and others are able to have up in space, but thanks so much for your service in space.

CHIAO: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: And we'll be right back.


SCIUTTO: Well, a rising number of new COVID infections means that fans are now banned from the Olympic Games in Tokyo. But for the athletes and others still attending, including journalists, they face a number of hurdles before they EVEN step foot on the Olympic grounds.

CNN'S Will Ripley has more.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The first thing people ask when I say I'm going to the Summer Olympics, is that still happening? The second thing they ask, is it safe? My team and I are traveling to Tokyo to find out.

Our journey begins four days before we fly, two tests for COVID-19 96 and 72 hours before departure.

Already, there has been tons of paperwork to fill out, lines to wait in just to get to this point.

We could only go to testing center as proved by the Japanese government.

This is by far the most documentation I've needed just to get on a flight.

Processing my pile of paperwork takes nearly an hour at the airport.

This is the moment of truth. They're checking my documents. I think I prepared them correctly. They have now brought in a man in yukata.

He tells me I need to download an app, fill out an online health questionnaire.

I have never been more grateful to get a boarding pass.

Only a few dozen passengers on my trip from Taipei to Tokyo, many airlines are canceling empty flights or suspending service altogether. Athletes from Fiji have to fly on a cargo plane that usually hauls frozen fish. I'm just grateful to have a window seat.

This is my first trip back to Japan since the start of the pandemic. Tokyo's Hanada Airport eerily quiet.

As you can see, I don't have much company.

A handful of passengers, a small army of health workers pouring over my paperwork, scanning my Q.R. code, ordering me to spit in a cup, the first of many daily COVID tests.

Social distancing, not a problem, as I wait for my results.


RIPLEY: Negative.

Being here for the Olympics feels surreal and sad. Japan invested billions to host the games, banking on a tourism boom. This is not what anyone had in mind.

The pandemic makes you appreciate life's little victories, like the moment I get my Olympic credentials.

Wow, there it is. It is official.

I clear customs and see an old friend, our longtime Tokyo hero driver Mr. Okano.

Mr. Okan was the very first face that I met in Tokyo.

As we leave the airport and head to the hotel, it finally feels real. We made it to Japan. The process surprisingly smooth, overall, even as the Japanese capital fights a fresh surge in COVID cases.


RIPLEY (on camera): And here we are in hotel quarantine for 14 days. Tokyo about to enter its fourth state of emergency of the pandemic, cases are surging. Will these measures be enough to prevent the delta variant from spreading like wildfire here in the Japanese capital where just 15 percent of the population is vaccinated nationwide?

Jim, it is a difficult decision for Tokyo Olympics organizers to say there will be no spectators in the venues that they've spent billions building but they say numbers are one thing and lives are another.

SCIUTTO: Risky conditions. Will Ripley, thanks very much.

Ahead, the 14-year-old national spelling bee champion speaks to CNN after her big win. The final word that earned her $50,000, a tough one. That is next.







SCIUTTO: Got to love that spin there at the end. That is 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde of Louisiana correctly spelling the winning word, murraya, last night. That is a type of tree, by the way. She is now the very first African-American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee taking home a $50,000 cash prize, lot's of pride as well and a big smile. She told CNN this morning this experience has felt like a dream.


AVANT-GARDE: It felt really good to win because I've been working on it for like two years. So to actually win the whole thing was like a dream come true. And I don't know, I feel like in the moment I snapped out surreal G (ph) in my head and walking and like the whole time I've been there in Orlando, even though I feel like I'm kind of back in it now.


SCIUTTO: If that wasn't enough, Zaila is not only a spelling bee champ, she's a basketball prodigy.


She holds three Guinness World records involving dribbling and juggling basketballs, has got a pretty nice bank shot. She