SPACE

Closing in on a tragedy

JOHN BARBER March 24 1986
SPACE

Closing in on a tragedy

JOHN BARBER March 24 1986

Closing in on a tragedy

SPACE

With only its running lights showing, the USS Preserver slipped into port at Cape Canaveral, Fla., last week carrying grim reminders of the space tragedy that stunned an entire nation on Jan. 28. The 213-foot U.S. navy salvage vessel carried a coffin which contained some of the

remains of the seven astronauts who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. And the ship also brought back two empty pressure suits used in space walks and all four flight recorders from the doomed shuttle. Spokesmen for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration provided few details about efforts to recover the Challenger’s crew cabin—which, on March 7, divers from the Preserver found 100 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic and about 16 miles east of the launch site. But relatives confirmed that NASA officials had told them the remains already recovered were in pieces and decomposed. Said Carl McNair, father of Challenger physicist Ronald McNair: “We are going to have to go through the same thing we did a month ago with the memorial services—only this time it will be a funeral.”

While pathologists tried to identify the remains at Patrick Air Force Base in nearby Cocoa Beach, space agency spokesmen were more forthcoming about attempts to locate the shuttle’s

right rocket booster—the prime suspect as the cause of the January disaster. And on March 12, salvage crews located a four-by-five-foot section of the booster rocket 32 miles offshore in 650 feet of water. Officials say they hope that the 500-lb. piece of wreckage will help to determine why smoke and

flame curled from the side of the booster seconds before the explosion.

Other events last week made it clear that the painstaking post-mortem of the disaster will not end with the burial of its victims. For one thing, building a replacement for Challenger and resuming a full shuttle schedule will be staggeringly expensive. And a NASA announcement that the agency would resume using unmanned rockets—to compete with the European Space Agency for a $l-billion yearly market in commercial space launchings—further emphasized the uncertain future of the shuttle program.

Still, NASA officials, like the millions of observers who saw the Challenger’s televised disintegration, were rivetted by salvage operations, which involved 11 surface ships, two manned submarines and three robot submarines. And the discovery of the nearly intact cabin renewed speculation that the crew members might have survived the explosion only to succumb to fumes or to perish when the cabin crashed into the

sea. Officials are hoping to answer such questions with data from the tape machines that were installed in the cabin to record conversations among the crew. Unlike the flight recorders carried on commercial airliners, those machines were not designed to withstand heavy shocks or submersion. But NASA officials and the astronauts’ relatives said that the tapes would reveal more information about the Challenger’s last moments before it exploded 73 seconds after lift-off. Said Bruce Jarvis, father of Challenger payload specialist Gregory Jarvis: “I’d like to have some proof, some tangible proof,that they were somewhere, that they didn’t just disappear.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, NASA’s acting administrator, William Graham, reported on the agency’s plans for getting the shuttle program back on schedule. He told a congressional committee that to ensure crew safety the remaining three shuttle craft will not be launched for at least a year and that subsequent launches will take place at a much slower rate than the monthly schedule NASA originally planned for 1986. He also estimated that a new shuttle craft would cost $4.5 billion— more than double the price of the Challenger, which cost $2.1 billion by the time it became operational in 1982. But officials at the Congressional Budget Office said that Americans might well have to accept “a slower rate of progress in all aspects of space policy” and forgo a program with four shuttle craft.

Some observers said that the congressional report signalled a revision of U.S. space policy which the Challenger disaster had accelerated. And that theory received partial confirmation last week when The New York Times published a memo from Graham to shuttle program chief Richard Truly stating that the agency would resume using expendable rockets to launch satellites. In the past, agency officials have insisted that the shuttle was the best method for the launches. And as the $5-million recovery operation continued off the Florida coast, NASA faced a much more difficult task: salvaging a world-leading space program from the wreckage of Challenger’s last flight.

—JOHN BARBER in Toronto with correspondents’ reports