As NASA yesterday transferred volumes of material about the Challenger disaster to the presidential commission investigating the accident, relatives of the shuttle astronauts said officials had told them that the remains of all seven crew members have been recovered.
The presidential panel had set a deadline of yesterday for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to complete its review. A NASA airplane flew from Cape Canaveral, Fla., with eight boxes of reports and supporting data to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where eight more boxes were loaded, and yesterday afternoon continued on to Washington, where the panel is has its headquarters. A jet carrying material from the Johnson Space Center in Houston also flew here yesterday.
Yesterday's transfer of thousands of pages of paper -- the boxes from Marshall weighed 400 pounds -- was not unlike previous transfers of material which have taken place periodically during NASA's seven-week internal investigation.
"There is still some cleanup work to be done," said NASA spokeman Dick Young in Cape Canaveral. "And the commission already has a lot of the material. But this constitutes the last major bulk of the material."
The cause of the accident was pinpointed several weeks ago as a leaky joint in Challenger's right-side solid-rocket booster.
Rubber O-rings in the booster joint failed to seal properly -- apparently because of the subfreezing temperatures the night before the Jan. 28 launch and design problems. The rings' failure allowed hot exhaust gases to spew from the side of the booster, cutting it partially loose and allowing it to pivot into the external tank. The punctured tank exploded in a fireball, ripping the shuttle apart 73 seconds after launch.
Several critical parts of shuttle debris -- including a piece of the right rocket joint with a hole melted in it -- were just recovered from the ocean bottom this week, delaying completion of NASA's analysis, but officials said yesterday the bulk of the work is done.
As salvage operations were scaled back this week, NASA began sending home some of the 11 ships and three submarines that have helped find and recover debris from the Atlantic.
At one point yesterday, NASA was expected to announce it was ending the search for astronaut remains and debris from the shuttle's crew compartment, but the announcement was postponed.
Betty Resnick, step-mother of astronaut Judith A. Resnick, said yesterday that enough remains of the seven Challenger astronauts have been recovered to permit identification of all seven, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.
A. Bruce Jarvis, father of Gregory B. Jarvis, said an astronaut called him Thursday morning to tell him his son's remains had been recovered. "Now that they've found him, I feel much better. It's been such a long wait," he said.
Betty Resnick also said NASA officials told her the last remains recovered were those of Jarvis. NASA has told relatives the remains will be released to families sometime around the first week in May, but has refused to make any public comment on their recovery.