NASA said yesterday that the remains of all seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger have been identified, and the agency has completed operations to recover the remains and the wreckage of the spacecraft's crew compartment.
"Remains of each of the seven . . . crew members have been recovered," the space agency said in a statement, its first public comment about the recovery of the astronauts' remains since a terse announcement March 9 that they had been discovered.
"Final forensic work and future planning in accordance with family desires is expected to be completed within the next several days and will be announced when appropriate," the statement continued.
NASA officials refused to elaborate yesterday and consistently have refused to discuss recovery of the crew's remains since the explosion of the shuttle Jan. 28.
The agency said that this policy is in deference to the privacy of the astronauts' families.
Family members told reporters last week that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has told them that the remains will be turned over to the families around May 1.
Navy divers who helped to recover the remains and the crew cabin, which lay in 86 feet of water about 18 miles off the coast of Florida, said early last week that the cabin was a twisted hunk of metal and wires and that the astronauts' remains were unrecognizable.
Federal investigators have said that the cabin broke away from the shuttle relatively intact and survived the nine-mile plunge to the ocean. It struck the surface at about 180 mph and was crushed. At least 75 percent of the crew compartment has been recovered, according to NASA officials.
It is not known if any of the astronauts survived the explosion and the turbulence of falling to earth.
Marvin Resnik, father of astronaut Judith Resnik, told UPI yesterday: "There are no bodies, mind you, there are just bits and pieces. I don't know how I can say that nicely. Even though the cabin was partially intact, the crew was not."
In yesterday's statement, NASA's chief of space flight, Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly, praised the often difficult month-long effort to recover the cabin and the crew's remains, a task hampered by rough weather.
"I know that I can speak for the families and all of NASA," Truly said, "in conveying our admiration for a job well done."
The NASA statement said that after a period of particularly rough weather in early April, a commercial scallop boat, "Big Foot," was brought in to drag the bottom, using fine nets to recover remains and debris covered by silt during the foul weather.
Other salvage operations continued yesterday, although on a much reduced scale as NASA nears completion of the recovery of all the wreckage located by sonar.
Six ships are assigned to the salvage operation, down from 11 a week ago. They are searching principally for the remaining parts of Challenger's right solid rocket booster, whose failure is believed to have caused the disaster.