Space Disaster Probe Opens

By Thomas O'Toole
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 30, 1986

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration set in motion today a long, slow and extraordinarily complex search for the cause of the catastrophic explosion that killed seven astronauts and destroyed the space shuttle Challenger in the worst disaster in space-flight history.

Ten ships and 10 aircraft began salvaging what was left of Challenger in a broad swath of ocean off the Florida coast, retrieving several hundred pounds of metal and tiles today from a space vehicle that once weighed more than 715,000 pounds. At the same time, officials at three space centers gathered together hundreds of millions of bits of computer data, pictures from more than 120 NASA cameras and statements from mission controllers, and even the film of remote-control news cameras near the launch pad.

All of it was placed under strict impoundment for analysis by specialized teams and boards assembled today for an investigation that could last six months or longer -- with no guarantee of ever providing a firm answer.

The White House announced that President Reagan, who spent much of the day consoling families over the telephone, will fly to the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Friday to lead the national tribute to crew members Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Navy Cmdr. Michael J. Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory B. Jarvis, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair and Judith A. Resnik.

"I think all of us have kind of escaped the numbness of shock that we all felt" Tuesday, the president said today. "But life has to go on, and so does the space program."

Despite two briefings by haggard-looking officials, the day after the Challenger disaster produced not even a hint of its cause from agency experts. However, NASA did provide at least one important new piece of information about events immediately after the explosion.

The two towering solid-fueled rocket engines that help lift the shuttle into orbit were deliberately blown up by the Air Force range safety officer just after the accident. The order to destroy the still-burning rockets was given when one of them headed out of control directly toward the Florida beaches. The rocket was apparently destroyed by radio command when it was less than 30 seconds from the Florida coastline.

"There was an indication that the rocket was headed for a populated area of the beach and the Air Force made the decision to destroy it," Richard G. Smith, director of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said. "It was the right decision."

The decision, however, destroyed what may have been the only pieces of evidence that were still intact after the explosion. Both rocket boosters blew up into fragments that fell and sank almost immediately to the bottom of the ocean, only 30 feet deep in the area.

Nevertheless, enough debris had already been picked up today that it filled an 82-foot Coast Guard cutter, which brought it back to Cape Canaveral to be sorted, marked and archived. Debris also floated up on beaches, prompting a plea from NASA to souvenir hunters to notify the agency rather than to pick up the material themselves.

"We want to get what's on the surface before it sinks. That's our main goal today," said Lt. Cdr. James Simpson, the Coast Guard officer supervising the air-and-sea search for Challenger wreckage. "We want to leave no stone unturned."

"We're looking at every possible scenario and every possible piece of evidence to locate a probable cause," Jesse W. Moore, NASA associate administrator for space flight, said at the Kennedy Space Center. "We intend to clearly understand all the circumstances of Challenger's flight by the time this investigation is over."

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company