Military pathologists from Washington have arrived at Patrick Air Force Base here to begin identifying the remains of the Challenger astronauts that were found 15 miles off the Florida coast over the weekend, sources said.
But attempts to complete recovery of the remains were stymied today by stiff winds and 6-foot-high waves. Navy divers were forced to abandon the effort and return to the search ship, the USS Preserver, but a spokeswoman said they hope to continue the operation as soon as winds die down.
Several news organizations reported today that some of the astronaut remains were brought in Saturday night when the Preserver returned to port with debris and other material found in the area where the Challenger's crew compartment was located.
The ship was met by astronaut Robert Overmeyer who supervised the unloading of bags and containers believed to contain some of the remains, according to sources.
Sources told the Associated Press that pathologists began examining the astronauts' remains today. But National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials, citing "family wishes," adhered to a policy of refusing to comment until the recovery operation is complete.
Seven crew members were aboard Challenger when it exploded 10 miles up and 73 seconds into its flight Jan. 28.
After a nearly six-week-long search over a 350-square-nautical-mile area, Navy divers made "positive identification" of the shuttle's crew compartment and human remains in 100-foot waters Saturday. A Navy spokeswoman said the compartment was not intact, describing it as "debris."
Recovery of the compartment could yield a wealth of details about the final seconds of Challenger's mission that would assist in investigation of the explosion. The 2,525-cubic-foot crew compartment, a two-deck cabin with a storage area for equipment, contains an intercom system that records all the astronauts' conversations, and computers that store key flight data, NASA officials said today.
The computers, the intercom system and other equipment would be located in the forward section of the cabin's mid-deck, in front of the astronauts' storage lockers. Crew members Gregory B. Jarvis, Ronald E. McNair and Christa McAuliffe were seated in the mid-deck, and crew members Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, pilot Michael J. Smith and commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee were in the upper-level flight deck.
NASA spokesman Terry White said there was no way of knowing the condition of the crew compartment or whether the recording systems and computers would prove useful after being in salt water for six weeks. He said there is no equivalent of the so-called black box that is on board commercial airliners and contains key flight data in an unbreakable metal container.
Meanwhile, it was learned today that the Coast Guard had probably passed over the crew compartment when it was searching for surface debris from the Challenger explosion. During the first week in February, Coast Gaurd ships had searched the area where the cabin has been found, but they were looking only for objects floating on the surface.
"It's certainly conceivable that we sailed over it," said Lt. Cmdr. James Simpson.
After issuing a warning to mariners, Coast Guard ships today patrolled a four-mile-wide "exclusion zone" where the Preserver was searching for the remains. The zone was imposed to prevent private boats from interfering with the recovery.
Two television networks, CBS and NBC, chartered boats and ABC hired a helicopter in an attempt to get film of the recovery operation. They were all either turned back by the Coast Guard or were unable to get close because of the rough weather.