The remains of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger were flown from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware yesterday to be prepared for burial or cremation and released to their families.
A simple ceremony was held at the cape's Kennedy Space Center immediately before an Air Force plane left with the flag-draped caskets of the seven astronauts who died after Challenger exploded seconds after liftoff three months ago.
During that ceremony, shortly after 9 a.m., a line of NASA and military personnel that included space flight director Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly and chief astronaut John Young stood at attention to honor the dead as they were carried onto the C141 cargo plane.
About noon, the aircraft, painted with a camouflage design, taxied onto an empty ramp at Dover for a similar ceremony. A 37-member honor guard and a color guard displaying American, NASA, Navy and Air Force flags marched up to greet it. A cavalcade of seven silver hearses glided to positions behind it.
There was a buzz of camera shutters, a lone command to the color guard. Then, no hymns, no speeches, no sounds. A crowd of nearly 200 Air Force officers and spectators watched in silence.
The casket of flight commander Francis R. Scobee was lifted first off the cargo plane by four pallbearers. It was followed by those of pilot Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, teacher Christa McAuliffe and Gregory Jarvis. Each casket was escorted by an astronaut assigned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Michael Boesenberg, contracted by NASA to tailor the white spacesuits that were worn by Resnik, McNair and Onizuka, was one of the hundreds who stood before the caskets. He was there, the Dover resident said, "just to say goodbye."
"That was probably the worst day of my life," he said about the day of the disaster, Jan. 28. "Knowing the system and knowing how susceptible it was . . . it was the kind of thing you just put in the back of your mind.
"I prefer not to know how and when they died . . . . For the people who know the shuttle, the people on the program, we don't need to know the specifics."
The caskets were placed in separate hearses and driven to the base mortuary. Once the remains are prepared, they will be flown by commercial carriers to the families, Air Force spokemen said.
No family members were present at yesterday's ceremonies, according to NASA and Air Force officials, who also said they knew scant details of when individual burials would take place. A burial for Smith, a naval officer and a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, is scheduled for Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery. Scobee, an Air Force test pilot, is to be buried there on May 19, which would have been his 47th birthday, spokesmen said.
Air Force and NASA spokesmen said there are no plans for further study of the remains of the seven who died some time after the Challenger exploded in a ball of flame, the worst disaster in the history of space travel.
Family members had said earlier they were told the bodies were nearly unrecognizable. Arlington Cemetery officials said yesterday that remains that could not be identified would be buried there under a collective grave with a marker listing the names of all seven astronauts.
Last week, Truly said that NASA had not been able to determine exactly how and when the crew died; photos of the explosion appeared to show the crew cabin intact as it left the fiery blast. Truly said additional analysis of the wreckage would be pursued to determine the amount of force the cabin suffered during the explosion and when it hit the water off the coast of Florida.
Yesterday, NASA spokesmen said they would not elaborate on questions about how the astronauts died. "Individual families will make arrangements of what to do with the remains, and NASA will have no further announcements," NASA spokeswoman Sarah Keegan said after the ceremony at Dover.
The remains were taken to Dover because NASA had no "suitable facility" for burial preparation, Keegan said, and "there is something of a tradition for those who have died for their country" to be brought to Dover.
Dover Air Force Base is the embalming site on the East Coast for government employes and military personnel. The bodies of 241 marines killed in a barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 were brought there, as were the bodies of 256 servicemen killed in a plane crash in Newfoundland last year.