The National Aeronautics and Space Administration yesterday named a former NASA rocket engine specialist to serve as vice chairman of its internal investigation into the Jan. 28 Challenger disaster.

Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly, who was recently appointed associate administrator for space flight and chief of the shuttle program, also said the NASA task force will operate with four teams of investigators to complement work by a presidential commission investigating the explosion of Challenger.

Truly, who is chairman of the internal review, announced that James R. Thompson, 49, will serve as vice chairman of the panel. Thompson has been the deputy director for technical operations at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory since April 1983.

Thompson spent 21 years with NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Eight years of his tenure there included managing the development program for the space shuttle's three liquid-fueled main engines.

He also worked in NASA's Skylab space station program and was associate director of engineering at Marshall.

Truly said the space agency's review board will be divided into four teams -- project analysis, launch systems and processing analysis, failure analysis and mission operations analysis.

He said two support groups will be formed to study salvage operations and to analyze television and photo documentation of the flight.

At Cape Canaveral, meanwhile, wind-whipped 10-foot waves kept salvage ships in port, delaying efforts to recover additional wreckage from the Challenger.

Among the shorebound ships was the Stena Workhorse, which was to have moved to the recovery area 42 miles northeast of the cape in an effort to retrieve a large chunk of the shuttle's left booster rocket -- a rehearsal for recovering parts of the right booster from deeper water. Failure of the right booster is suspected as a cause of the explosion.

In Washington, a White House official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said former NASA administrator James C. Fletcher has been told by White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan that he is the leading contender to succeed James M. Beggs as head of the embattled agency. Beggs resigned this week. He had been on leave since December after being indicted on federal fraud charges unrelated to his NASA duties