Navy divers have located wreckage of the crew compartment of the space shuttle Challenger lying on the ocean bottom in 100 feet of water and confirmed that it contains remains of the astronauts killed nearly six weeks ago, NASA said today.
Divers, aided by sonar, made a "possible" identification of the crew cabin late Friday afternoon. On Saturday, another group of divers from the USS Preserver, who the space agency said were "thoroughly briefed on debris identification," began to search the area.
"Subsequent dives provided positive identification of the Challenger crew compartment debris and the existence of crew remains," the National Aeronautics and Space Administration statement said.
The families of the seven crew members were notified of the discovery over the weekend. In deference to the families, the agency said it will release no further details until the recovery is completed and the remains are identified.
However, a spokesman for the Navy, Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Burnette, said that neither the crew compartment nor the bodies were intact. "We're talking debris, and not a crew compartment, and we're talking remains, not bodies," she said.
Because of stiff winds and ocean currents, it "may take several days" to complete the recovery off the Florida coast, NASA officials said. Because of six-foot waves, no recovery operations were possible today.
Burnette said that the Preserver returned to port Saturday night, but said she could not comment on whether it carried any crew cabin debris or remains.
The compartment was believed to have been located about 15 miles east of the cape, although NASA would not give an exact location and said that "local security measures are being taken to assure that recovery operations can take place in a safe and orderly manner."
Pathologists from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology have flown to Patrick Air Force Base near the cape, where they will assist in identifying the remains, officials said.
NASA's Hugh Harris said the divers were not able to determine how many of the bodies are in the wreckage.
Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven aboard. The crew members were commander Francis Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first "ordinary" person in space.
NASA said it began to notify the families on Friday, but McNair's father told United Press International, "I just heard today on news reports" that the divers had identified remains of the crew. McNair was in New York at ceremonies to establish a fund for the Ron McNair Science Playground in Harlem and appeared visibly shaken by the news.
Resnik's father, Marvin, told the Associated Press that the discovery "is not going to bring anybody back. There's nothing we can do about it. As far as I'm concerned, services have already been performed."
Dr. Charles Resnik of Richmond, Resnik's brother, said in an interview the family was notified Friday night. "But there is no more news than that," he said. "They've at least seen it and the impression is that there were remains. They didn't say who or what. They told us they'd let us know when they had more information."
Tony Smith, the younger brother of pilot Mike Smith, said his family had been told Friday that searchers had located the crew cabin but that he knew nothing about reports that the compartment contained remains of the astronauts. That news "doesn't make any difference to me now," he said. "If they found anything, what they found is a physical part of a person. That's not the part I'm concerned about. The part of the person that matters has already been taken away."
Alan Jarvis, the brother of mission specialist Gregory Jarvis, said, "I was hoping it wouldn't happen. I think it would add a lot more trauma to an already traumatic experience."
The discovery of the remains follows a massive salvage and recovery operation that began within minutes after the Challenger exploded on Jan. 28. The operation, described as one of the the most extensive ever mounted by the U.S. Navy, has involved a flotilla of 11 ships, one nuclear-powered submarine, and 41 deep sea divers searching an area of 350 square nautical miles starting due east of the Kennedy Space Center launch pad.
Although the NASA statement was vague in describing the condition of the debris, it is likely that the compartment was substantially broken up and that the remains had undergone some decomposition and attack by fish and other sea life common at that depth.
It is known that the explosive force of the initial fireball virtually shredded much of the orbiter into scores of pieces. Some of these have already been recovered, including the right wall of the mid-deck of the crew compartment. McAuliffe, McNair and Jarvis, wearing pressure suits and helmets, were each held by two shoulder harnesses and a lap belt in seats in this area. Above them, similarly equipped and strapped into seats in the flight deck, were Scobee, Smith, Resnik and Onizuka.
The impact of the explosion may have been sufficient to kill the astronauts or at least knock them unconscious but, if not, it is possible that the instantaneous loss of cabin pressure, caused by the walls ripping open, would have done so. It could not immediately be determined whether the pressure suits would continue to operate if the cabin was torn apart and the shuttle's normal life support systems destroyed.
In any event, there would have been no time to make use of any of the shuttle's emergency escape systems, which are designed for emergency landings on water. These include life preservers and self-contained emergency air supplies stowed under the seats.
There are unconfirmed reports that some of the contents of the crew cabin were found floating on the water in the days after the explosion, including three flight helmets and some of the contents of McAuliffe's locker, including materials she was to have used in teaching from space.
When the cabin hit the water, falling at a rate of several hundred miles per hour, it was undoubtedly further damaged. If any crew members lived this long, it is virtually impossible that they could have survived the impact.
The existence of crew remains has been a subject of speculation here for weeks, particularly after reports a few days after the disaster that an unidentified bone had washed ashore on a Brevard County beach. But NASA has repeatedly said that "as a matter of policy" it would make no public comment on the subject.
Late last month, however, NASA did acknowledge that military pathologists had flown to Patrick Air Force Base shortly after the accident to assist in the investigation. NASA said the pathologists' only role at the time was to establish work plans and procedures in the event that any remains were found.
An official at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology said recently that when bodies are recovered from any sort of crash they can tell a great deal about how the accident occurred and what caused the death of the victims. For example, it is possible to determine whether there was a fire in the cabin and whether that killed the astronauts.
Pathologists may also be able to determine whether toxic fumes were present and what the source of them was through an examination of tissues.
Meanwhile, searchers continued their efforts to find the Challenger's right solid rocket booster, whose failure is believed to have caused the explosion.
The search has been hampered by stiff ocean currents and murky waters that have kept visibility to only a few feet. Of 227 "sonar contacts" that had been made by the searchers as of Friday, only 17 were identified as shuttle debris with 185 that had not yet been identified.
It was apparently one of those unidentified objects found by the sonar scanners that turned out to be the crew compartment.