Like a grim ghost ship, the broken space capsule sat on the ocean floor, 18 miles east of the launching pad at Cape Canaveral. Peering through the clear blue water of the Gulf Stream, U.S. Navy divers could make out the remains of several crew members of the space shuttle Challenger. The astronauts, some still strapped into their seats, had come to rest in 100 ft. of water after the long plunge from the sky on the icy morning last January that marked a crash landing for the U.S. space program.
The discovery of the bodies was a wrenching twist for the families of the Challenger astronauts. It came as the finger pointing and recriminations inside NASA spilled into public view with harsh accusations by veteran astronauts that the space agency had repeatedly placed expediency over safety. Reeling, NASA administrators were forced to concede in congressional testimony that the shuttle program has been seriously set back, so much so that the entire space effort may require a thorough reorganization.
NASA's woes were further accentuated by a Soviet coup. Just as U.S. television cameras were showing the Navy recovery ship, the U.S.S. Preserver, bringing to Port Canaveral its dolorous cargo in a flag-draped container last week, Soviet television was beaming to the world images of a triumph: the successful launch of a Soyuz spacecraft that carried a pair of cosmonauts to the Soviets' newest space station. Normally, the Soviets announce space shots only after they have been safely launched. Though last week's "live" telecast appeared to be risky--what if something had gone wrong?--the Soviets actually hedged their bet. They appeared to have built a 60-second tape delay into the broadcast of the launch.
NASA and the Navy have tried to keep a tight lid on the recovery of the astronauts' bodies, but some details inevitably came to light. Discovered resting on the ocean floor by the 15-ship search fleet that has been scouring the waters off Canaveral since the Jan. 28 disaster, the Challenger's crew compartment, 16.5 ft. by 17.5 ft. by 16.3 ft., was ruptured but not completely destroyed. The lower mid-deck, where Astronauts Ronald McNair and Gregory Jarvis and New Hampshire Schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe had been seated, apparently absorbed the full force of the blast from the shuttle's huge external fuel tank and was nearly obliterated. The upper flight deck, where the commander, Francis Scobee, as well as Astronauts Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka and Judith Resnik were seated, was still partly intact. The Navy's team of 40-odd divers managed to bring to the surface the remains of the crew members. The divers also recovered the shuttle's four flight recorders, which might, despite a six-week soak in salt water, provide valuable data about the disaster. Although NASA had not announced it, within a few days of the crash U.S. Coast Guard searchers recovered three battered flight helmets and a plastic package containing materials McAuliffe had planned to use to teach schoolchildren "lessons from space."