The Challenger as it exploded on January 28, 1986 (Credit: NASA/Kennedy Space Center)

Obviously, a Major Malfunction

First came the bang. Then . . . silence. A story about catastrophe and coverup.

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 5:00 PM

This story was originally published as the cover story in TROPIC, the magazine of The Miami Herald, November 13, 1988. It is republished this week as part of Dennis E. Powell’s twentieth anniversary remembrance of the second shuttle disaster.

There was no moon early the morning of March 9, 1986, and at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station the breeze was ominous. A storm would arrive in a couple of days — it was building — and it added to the uneasiness the sailors already felt.

They had been in port with their cargo, if that was the word, for three or four hours now. The skipper and the other guy he’d been diving with that day, the astronaut, had gone off for a debriefing with a Marine colonel, the one who was over there now, arguing with a security guard. Everyone felt…yes, spooky was indeed the word. Though the crew of the USS Preserver was accustomed to duty of this nature, this was somehow…different. The gallows humor didn’t have its biting edge, and it simply trailed off, unanswered. It was the grimmest night in a business where grim nights are common.

The three black, plastic-coated fabric bags were unloaded, put first into 30-gallon plastic garbage cans, then into the back of an open-bed U.S. Navy pickup truck. The colonel and the guard were still arguing. What if there were a wreck? Can you imagine? Those garbage cans would go flying and pop open — the thought was unbearable.

There are nightclubs up and down the beachfront highway, A1A, that links Cape Canaveral and Patrick Air Force Base, 25 miles to the south. It was now well after midnight, Saturday night. The road was always heavily traveled, and at this hour the standard of driving would not be high.

Too bad. The colonel was unswayed. The risk had to be taken. The truck would be less conspicuous, less suspicious-looking, than a helicopter or a more substantial military vehicle, and the whole idea was to avoid the press. And the local medical examiner.

The pickup truck headed out on its 40-minute journey.

Drivers on A1A that night and morning, those who could still focus their eyes, probably didn’t much notice the Navy truck. Military vehicles are common in that part of Florida. Nor could they have guessed that it carried something everyone in the country had speculated about at one time or another during the past six weeks.

On the truck, in the garbage cans, were the bodies of three astronauts from the space shuttle Challenger.

“That’s a minor horror story,” says Robert B. Hotz, a member of the presidential commission that investigated the accident. “There are some major horror stories, about the way they tried to cover up the whole thing. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

It had been a disaster in every way a thing could be a disaster. When the great puffy yellow fire-explosion broke the Challenger to pieces, NASA, back on the ground, was itself already fractured. Its administrator, James Beggs, had recently resigned while under indictment on charges of overcharging the defense department while he was a private contractor. (He was later cleared.) There was a new director of public affairs, Shirley Green, from Vice President George Bush’s office.

The space agency had become a bit of a laughing stock as well. The shuttle program was long behind schedule — the Challenger flight, designated, STS-51L, was to have been launched in July, 1985, for example — and postponements were far more frequent than launches. Customers, people with satellites to launch or retrieve, were fed up, and NASA was frantic to keep them happy.

But it wasn’t only customers who were dissatisfied. The delays had hurt NASA where it had always been strongest: public relations. Politicians were no longer falling all over themselves to heap on the praise.

Each year, the White House sends a form letter to government agencies as part of its preparation for the State of the Union Address. The letter asks the agencies what they are doing that might be worthy of mention in the address. NASA’s public affairs machine cranked out a glowing account of the shuttle program and noted that, even as the president spoke, the nation’s first schoolteacher-in-orbit would be circling the Earth.

A couple of lines about the space program were included in an early draft of the address, but soon even they were excised. “The people at NASA were upset about this,” says Hotz. “They wanted back into the speech.”

Whether eagerness to be mentioned by the president the night of Jan. 28 resulted in a corresponding eagerness to launch that day despite unfavorable weather conditions remains unclear.

But there was a launch. A little more than 72 seconds later, there was a tragedy. That afternoon the White House announced that there would be no State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, because NASA’s space shuttle had blown up. Ironically, the president did talk to the nation night, in a speech devoted entirely to the space shuttle and the explosion.

(It was later determined that there was not an explosion as such, but rather a violent breakup and fire. Had there been an explosion, the energy released would have been many times greater than it was, and the likelihood of finding much identifiable debris from the shuttle would have been slight. As it was, the spectacular display resulted from the combustion of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen coming together in the low pressure and thin air found at 45,000 feet. The dismemberment of the shuttle is now attributed chiefly to the aerodynamic stresses of the sudden change in attitude and direction, rather than the pyrotechnics, which, though dramatic, exerted only a few pounds per-square-inch pressure on a crew cabin designed to routinely tolerate three times as much.)

NASA was caught completely off balance. The unthinkable had happened, and, being unthinkable, had caught the space agency unprepared.

“NASA absolutely didn’t know what to do,” says Hotz. “They were so smug about the idea that they would never have an accident that they had absolutely no plans or organization capable of handling it.”

Tapes of the mission controller’s internal communications loop reveal confusion. At one point it was announced that a paramedic had been parachuted into the water. The parachute was in fact carrying the nose cone from one of the solid rocket boosters. There would be no paramedics. There was no place for them to go.

Every aircraft that flies in this country is required to carry what is called an ELT, for emergency locating transmitter. This device is a crash-activated radio beacon that summons aid and provides a precise location if there is a mishap. There was no ELT aboard Challenger. (Nor have they been installed in the remaining shuttles.)

“There was some discussion of it, but it was never acted upon,” said James Beggs in a recent interview. “You have to remember, there are severe weight restrictions. Every piece of equipment you add cuts into the payload.”

Such a transmitter weighs less than 10 pounds. Among the things that did make the manifest of the Challenger were 700 embroidered mission patches, more than 1,600 flags of various sizes, countries and states, a video disk, an assortment of medallions, a deflated soccer ball, the town seal of Framingham, Mass., 47 copies of the U.S. Constitution, and patches, pins, ornaments and assorted other things for organizations that wished to have something that had been in orbit aboard the shuttle. But no locating transmitter.

Though a transmitter would not have saved lives, it would have speeded up recovery of the bodies and equipment. But more important, its absence in the Challenger was an indication of a basic discrepancy between what NASA said and what it did. Although the astronauts had been drilled repeatedly in ditching procedures — how to evacuate a vehicle downed in the water — NASA was so certain there was no possibility of surviving an aborted launch that they failed to include the most basic survivor-spotting equipment.

“We did talk about it,” says an astronaut. “But despite what they told us, nobody ever felt ditching was survivable, so it would just be there to help go for the bag drag. The view was that they didn’t even want to think about it.”

“Bag drag” is astronaut talk for search and recovery of corpses.

No one on the ground knew then, but it is now fairly clear to a few people in NASA what happened inside the crew cabin. Investigators, who have been forbidden to talk to reporters about the disaster and who therefore have asked that their names not be used, have pieced together the following account:

When the shuttle broke apart, the crew compartment did not lose pressure, at least not at once. There was an uncomfortable jolt — “A pretty good kick in the pants” is the way one investigator describes it — but it was not so severe as to cause injury. This probably accounted for the “uh oh” that was the last word heard on the flight deck tape recorder that would be recovered from the ocean floor two months later. As they were feeling the jolt, the four astronauts on the flight deck saw a bright flash and a cloud of steam. The lights went out. The intercom went dead. After a few breaths, the seven astronauts stopped getting oxygen into their helmets.

Someone, apparently astronaut Ronald McNair, leaned forward and turned on the personal emergency air pack of shuttle pilot Michael Smith. The PEAP of Commander Francis Scobee was in a place where it was difficult to reach. It was not activated. Even so, if the crew compartment did not rapidly lose air pressure, Scobee would only have had to lift his mask to be able to breathe. Two other PEAPs were turned on. The three others were never found.

Though the shuttle had broken to pieces, the crew compartment was intact. It stabilized in a nose-down attitude within 10 to 20 seconds, say the investigators. Even if the compartment was gradually losing pressure, those on the flight deck would certainly have remained conscious long enough to catch a glimpse of the green-brown Atlantic rushing toward them. If it lost its pressurization very slowly or remained intact until it hit the water, they were conscious and cognizant all the way down.

In fact, no clear evidence was ever found that the crew cabin depressurized at all. There was certainly no sudden, catastrophic loss of air of the type that would have knocked the astronauts out within seconds. Such an event would have caused the mid-deck floor to buckle upward; that simply didn’t happen.

In any case, they seemed almost weightless at first. Then, as the hurtling cabin reached its terminal velocity, they strained forward, toward the Earth, held in their seats by the webbing straps across their laps and legs and over their shoulders.

The cabin swayed only slightly — a degree or two each way. Behind it, lengths of wire, hundreds of them, trailed like the tail of a child’s kite, helping to stabilize it. They were part of the shuttle’s wiring harness.

The free-fall lasted about 2½ minutes. The cabin nose was tilted a little to the right when it hit the ocean, just enough to send the cabin crashing onto its left side. It hit at about 200 miles an hour, fracturing like a bottle dropped onto a concrete pavement, but held together by the thousands of feet of wire that surround the cabin like a kind of high-tech cocoon. The astronauts were torn from their seats and thrown to the left, which was now down. They died instantly, dismembered by the impact.

Though the official report, made by Dr. Joseph Kerwin of NASA’s Life Sciences branch in a news conference July 28, 1986, indicates that no cause of death could be determined, there is little doubt among investigators that the crew of Challenger remained alive until impact, even if the cabin lost its pressure. There is a statistical possibility that one or more of the crew may have gone into cardiac arrest due to depressurization, but this phenomenon is uncommon and would not have affected the entire crew. Certainly, says one investigator, those aboard what was left of Challenger could not have been pronounced dead until they received the injuries that occurred when the cabin met the Atlantic. Even had any crew member gone into cardiac arrest due to depressurization, they would have been easily revivable.

“If it had landed softly,” said one of the investigators, “they could have swum home.”

The confusion at Kennedy Space Center was reflected in a virtual blackout of information about the tragedy, a blackout that in many respects remains in effect today. There were already 400 reporters at KSC, and the number would quadruple within 24 hours.

“NASA made the corporate decision that all questions would have to be approved by a board of inquiry before they could be answered,” says Lt. Cmdr. James Simpson of the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami. “For a while, they said that all questions would have to be answered by NASA headquarters in Washington. This led to a problem, because the only people who knew anything were down here in Florida.

“So NASA had 26 public affairs officers sitting there, and they couldn’t answer any questions. Videotapes and still pictures that were normally released instantly were held up for days. It certainly made it look as though something wasn’t on the up and up.”

In fact, something wasn’t on the up and up. NASA took the position that the astronauts had been killed instantly, and material that tended to support speculation to the contrary was suppressed.

“You want to find out what really happened?” Simpson asked. “I wish you luck. You’re going to have a hard time doing it.”

Says an astronaut: “There aren’t many people who know anything. There are top people in NASA who still haven’t been briefed on what really happened.”

Indeed, the phrase “what really happened” is commonly heard in and around Kennedy Space Center. It is almost a code. One needn’t mention the shuttle at all; all that’s necessary is a statement: “I’d sure like to know what really happened,” and everyone understands. There are even those who have compiled lists of the people who are believed to know what really happened.

Added to NASA’s silence was the unofficial policy of lying when necessary, says Simpson. He offers as an example the crew cabin debris discovered on Jan. 29 by a Coast Guard vessel. “It included notebooks, tape recorders, all stuff from the crew compartment,” Simpson remembers. It also included an astronaut’s helmet, largely intact, containing ears and scalp. “I was supposed to go on television and discuss the search and recovery. I got up at 4 a.m. and was told about the cabin debris, which was found the night before. The public affairs guy at NASA didn’t know about it until I told him — his own people didn’t even tell him. He said, `You’re not going to mention this on TV this morning, are you?’

“I told him that if I was asked about it, I certainly would. I said, `The Coast Guard has no interest in going on national television to tell lies to protect you.’”

Finally, NASA’s Astronaut Office contacted Simpson.

“I was told the families hadn’t been told yet, even though the debris had been found the night before,” he says. “I didn’t want them to hear about it on television. So I lied on television. I still feel bad about that.”

Those involved in the investigation say it probably wasn’t the first and certainly wasn’t the last deliberate falsehood to come from NASA during the post-Challenger era.

At the time the shuttle came apart, there were several Coast Guard vessels on the scene, chiefly to keep other craft out of the area down-launch. Also on hand were two boats, Freedom Star and Liberty Star, operated by Morton Thiokol to pick up the reusable solid rocket boosters. “Once the accident occurred, the range safety officer at Patrick ordered us away for about 35 minutes because of falling debris,” remembers Simpson. “By that time, there were helos [helicopters] from Patrick on the scene, as well as a C-130 fixed-wing. They saw a lot of floating debris.”

The Coast Guard employs an elaborate system for its searches, called CASP, for computer-assisted search planning. It has been used in searches involving the submarine USS Scorpion, which disappeared near the Azores in 1968, and the loss of a Strategic Air Command B-52 bomber loaded with hydrogen bombs off the coast of Spain.

It’s a sophisticated program, but does it work in reverse? Given local conditions and an impact point, it will predict where floating objects will be found. Given floating objects, will it cough up an impact point? Those involved in the search believed it would be less reliable in this regard. They were surprised.

“We took the data from where the cabin debris was found, and drifted it back,” says Lt. Jennifer Yount, assigned to OpsCen Miami at the time. “That gave us an area, a circle about a mile in diameter. The crew cabin was ultimately found in that area.”

Not that NASA was especially interested. The prevailing belief among those in control at Kennedy Space Center — and especially in the mind of astronaut Robert Crippen, who had taken charge of much of the work there — was that the crew compartment had disintegrated at the time of explosive fire. But even at this point some in NASA were pointing out that there was no more than six or seven pounds per square inch of pressure exerted on the crew compartment during breakup, and the compartment had been proof tested to 20 pounds psi. But the official story was that the crew had been vaporized, and that was that. There was no particular reason to seek the crew cabin, because it would not be found in just one place.

“Nor was it a high-priority part of the search from a scientific point of view,” says an astronaut. “This was not a crew-related accident. You go out and find them, say a few words over them, and you’ve lost a couple of days, while the stuff you really need, the stuff that will tell you what happened, is drifting farther and farther away or getting deeper under the silt. We knew they were dead. There wasn’t’ anything we could do about that. All we could hope to do was find out what happened. So yeah, we looked for the crew compartment, but it wasn’t a matter of desperate interest.”

The news media were desperately interested in the fate of the crew. Local Radio Shack stores quickly sold out of receivers that could monitor Coast Guard frequencies. It was as though a thousand would-be drug smugglers had hit town. There was a pressroom black market in those frequencies, for without them one could tune back and forth forever with no results.

After CBS News broadcast some taped salvage transmissions on its evening television show, the Coast Guard knew eavesdroppers abounded.

“One day, there was a transmission, `We have Mr. Smith from NASA aboard, and will be bringing him in tonight.’,” says Jim Simpson. “Some Coast Guard guys knew the media were listening in, and were just screwing around with them.” In fact, there was a code to indicate that crew remains had been found. A vessel making such a discovery was to make a radio report using the name “Tom O’Malley.”

“Probably 80 percent of the stuff you were looking at had nothing to do with the shuttle,” says Capt. Skip Pick of Tracor Marine, the Fort Lauderdale company that provided two oceanographic research vessels. “There wasn’t any part of it that was fun. The weather was terrible. The seas are horrendous during the winter.”

NASA insisted on secrecy. Even unrecognizable pieces of twisted metal were to be brought in under tarpaulins.

“It was our understanding that they wanted to get all the pieces together before anything was released, to avoid rumor and conjecture,” says Pick. “They didn’t tell us why they were doing it, but that was the way it was to be done.”

On Feb. 8, a side-scanning sonar “fish” picked up a large lump of debris on the bottom, in 90 to 100 feet of water a few hundred yards northeast of the Hetzel Shoals buoy, a navigational aid about 15 miles northeast of the launch site. It was located in an area where search vessels frequently dropped anchor for the night.

It was listed as “Target 67.”

It was the Challenger’s crew cabin.

The USS Preserver was lumbering down the coast when crew members heard on the radio that the shuttle had blown up. The 213-foot, 1,000-ton vessel is called an ARS, for auxiliary rescue and salvage. Its job is to fish things out of the water. Many of its crew of 85, including its skipper, are skilled divers.

“We were about at the latitude of Savannah, Ga.,” recalls Cmdr. John Devlin, “when the deck officer called out the sighting of a large floating object. It turned out to be the top piece of the external fuel tank.

“We dropped our tow in Mayport [Naval Station, Fla.] and joined the search.”

When the Preserver reached Port Canaveral, Cmdr. Devlin’s entire wardroom — most of whom were divers — was given a thorough briefing and tour of one of the shuttles at Kennedy Space Center.

“I told my crew it would be like picking up half of an aircraft carrier,” says Devlin.

If Bob Crippen didn’t expect to find the crew cabin, his opinion was not unanimously held.

“The people who talked to us expected to find it pretty much intact,” Devlin says. “Our previous experience in aircraft recovery is that hitting the water is like hitting land, so we weren’t quite so sure.”

The Preserver had been in Port Canaveral a few months earlier, and Devlin and some of his crew had taken a few proficiency dives offshore. At the time, Devlin and the other divers remarked to each other that they hoped they would never have to engage in a salvage operation there, the current was so bad.

Dr. Ronald Reeves had been scheduled to begin work in the Brevard County Medical Examiner’s office as chief assistant on Feb. 1, but when the Challenger went down, he came in a few days early. Years in the military, particularly at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, had familiarized him with the pathology of aircraft disasters. Years in Florida made him realize that such human remains from Challenger as were recovered would be the responsibility of the local medical examiner. Reeves figured he would be busy.

“For the first few weeks, we were called fairly regularly,” he remembers. “Anything that was washed ashore that appeared to be tissue would be turned in, and we’d go look at it, down at Patrick. We are talking lots of pieces of deer and pigs, bones from meals people had on boats, that sort of thing. But it seemed that everyone understood what our job was, and we all were cooperating.

“It was logical, anyway, for us to do the work. Local knowledge of the water conditions and so on would enable us to pinpoint things that anyone else could only estimate. We simply have more experience than anyone else. So, of course, we just assumed we’d be doing our job.”

That all changed, he says.

“One day I received a call to go down and look at a foot. A woman from Miami had found it on a beach up here. She figured it was from the shuttle, and for some unknown reason decided it would make a good souvenir. So she took it home with her. After a couple of days, she decided it wasn’t such a good souvenir after all.

“She took it to Homestead Air Force Base and turned it in. It was sent to Patrick, and I was called by NASA’s medical department, as I should have been.”

But when Reeves got to Patrick, the hospital commander told him there was no such thing. Later, at a meeting with the Air Force legal staff, Reeves complained about the apparent contradiction. One of the lawyers hit the roof. He demanded to know who had told Reeves about the foot.

Wait minute, Reeves asked. Had there been a foot, or hadn’t there?

Reeves recalls what happened next:

“The hospital commander, who had told me there was no such thing, kind of shrugged. He said he’d been told to deny it was even there. They’d lied to me. I wondered if this was now how things would be.”

Aboard the USS Preserver, life was settling down. There had been some harsh weather, when the water turned a muddy blue-black, waves were high and there was no diving to be done. Two astronauts were aboard, both physicians. One was James Bagian, whose wife, too, is a doctor. He is a diver and sailor and the father of a tiny girl, a year old at the time, named Christa, just like the teacher who had been aboard Challenger.

The other was Manley “Sonny” Carter. He is a textbook overachiever. After getting his medical degree, he became a Navy pilot — not an easy thing in itself. But he didn’t stop there. He attended the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, Calif., and not only did well, but actually became a “Top Gun” instructor.

Every few days, the Preserver would enter Port Canaveral to unload the debris it had collected. Each time, it would run a gauntlet of still and television photographers lining a sort of informal parade route at the entrance to the port, in an area called Jetty Park, normally a popular campground for recreational vehicle owners and one of the area’s nicer beaches. This led to a little joke Devlin and his crew allowed themselves to play on the media.

“We had an old aluminum rowboat below that we’d put over the side for maintenance work,” Devlin says. “One day, coming in, I had it brought up and put on the fantail. Sure enough, it was photographed, and this paint-spattered Sears and Roebuck rowboat was identified as shuttle debris.

“When we’d come in at night, the TV lights were so powerful they made it very difficult to navigate,” he says. It also made it difficult to see Preserver’s running lights — so much so that it was reported that the vessel was coming in under a blackout. This angers Devlin, because it would be unseamanlike and illegal to kill the running lights.

The night this was reported on television, March 8, Preserver’s running lights were on as usual. The boat was by then involved in a blackout of a different sort.

It had begun the day before, aboard an old but seaworthy Air Force vessel called the Lucy, a nickname she had gotten because she was an LCU: landing craft, utility. She had a crane and winches aboard. Her skipper was Walt Hardman; like his crew of five, he is an experienced diver. The Lucy had been pressed into salvage duty for low-priority targets on the ocean floor, in 75 feet of water. Already they’d found the right wing from Challenger, the left side of the shuttle’s fuselage and a lot of other debris.

The afternoon of March 7, two divers visited what was known as “Target 67.” (Neither the number nor its location — 400 yards northeast of the Hetzel Shoals buoy, about 15 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral — appears in official lists of sonar contacts made during the search, and for reasons not easily discerned, these data remain classified.) Lewis Brinn, the boat’s first mate, and a diver named Terry Bailey saw it as another routine, low-priority dive. Maybe they’d get lucky and find large pieces of the Tracking and Data Relay satellite, which NASA seemed eager to recover.

They had no idea what Target 67 was.

Brinn had been suffering from a sinus infection, and before he reached the bottom he developed a nosebleed. The divers surfaced, and another crewman, Mike McAllister, took Brinn’s place.

Down they swam. Visibility at that time of year, at that depth and in that part of the Atlantic, varies from as little as three feet to as much as 30 feet. This day it was at the low end of the scale. It took a few minutes just to find the tangled heap on the bottom.

Bailey jumped back, if one can jump back in 90 feet of water, in horror. There, like a ghost, was a pair of white legs, sticking out from under the debris, waving gently in the current. He high-tailed it for the surface. “He was pretty freaked out,” remembers Hardman. “He looked like a Pekingese dog. His eyes were bugged out, and he said he wasn’t diving in a graveyard.”

What Bailey had seen was the lower half of an empty space suit, aboard Challenger for use with the Manned Maneuvering Units, which allow astronauts to go outside the crew compartment. It had been stowed at the time of launch, so it wasn’t as grisly as it was eerie.

More important, it was fairly definitive evidence that the crew cabin had been located.

“We had become friends with the people aboard the Preserver,” says Lucy’s skipper. “I got on the radio and said Target 67 had been positively identified. They asked what it was, and I said I wouldn’t say over the radio. Our radios were not secure.” A small boat was put over the LCU’s side, and Hardman and one of his crew motored to the Preserver, which had encoding equipment.

The Preserver powered over to the LCU and, in the day’s last light, sent a diver down. It looked as though this was it.

“We returned to port that night,” Hardman remembers. “Just after we got in, this NASA guard came aboard and began ordering people around, threatening us and telling us that we’d be in big trouble if word of what we’d found leaked out.” Later, an astronaut stopped by and, using gentler language, asked the crew to understand the delicacy of the situation. The families would have to be told. They wouldn’t want to hear about it on the radio or television.

Ron Reeves and his boss, Dr. Laudie McHenry, the Brevard County medical examiner, figured their work was cut out for them. By law, they were required to perform autopsies on any human remains brought into their jurisdiction even if those remains were famous and even if the conditions were unusual.

“There hadn’t been a problem before,” says Reeves. “When there had been deaths at KSC, the Brevard medical examiner handled them.” In 1981, for example, workers were overcome by toxic fumes from a fuel tank, and a couple of them died. The Brevard M.E., headquartered in a modern laboratory in Melbourne, next to an underground bunker housing the local Civil Defense, was called in as a matter of course.

But this situation was different, and the attitude the local officials were encountering was different, too. NASA was strangely noncommittal about who would do the autopsies. It was announced that when and if remains were found, they would be kept at Hangar L, the life sciences building, at KSC. Dr. McHenry was invited to stop by and inspect the facilities.

“I went out there a time or two,” he says. “I didn’t see much.”

The M.E.’s office announced that it considered itself responsible by law for any remains from Challenger.

NASA, as it turned out, disagreed.

About 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, March 8, two divers from the USS Preserver dove on Target 67. Neither Cmdr. Devlin nor astronaut Bagian was utterly convinced that the crew compartment had been found.

Visibility wasn’t good. Neither was the condition of the cabin. It looked as though the cabin had been blown up by a bomb, then the pieces swept together into a pile on the ocean floor.

“It took a few minutes,” remembers Devlin. Bagian probed the heap of broken material. Yes, there was the hand controller for the shuttle’s manipulator arm.

“It was all there,” says Devlin. “It came down within five degrees of vertical.” It was terribly broken, and was spread over a 60-foot oval. It resembled the crew compartment in the same way a crushed insect resembles what it had been. A few pieces stuck as much as six feet above the ocean floor. The big, round, aft end of the cabin, called the 576 bulkhead, lay flat, largely covered by other debris, but surprisingly intact.

“Our priority was the crew remains,” says Devlin. “The way we felt was that we were looking at national heroes. These were seven that didn’t make it but they gave their best, and we owed them respect.”

The bodies were not sundered in the way one might have expected, certainly not as badly as those from particularly bad jet airliner crashes. But they had been in 95 feet of warmish ocean water, in an area teeming with life, for six weeks. They were not really recognizable as former people. Such soft tissue as remained had become almost gelatinous and very delicate. Some had taken on a waxy, soapy texture, due to a hydrolysis reaction that takes place in seawater over time. Recovery was not a simple task. There was damage from shrimp and crabs.

Carefully, one at a time, they were brought aboard the Preserver. The remains — it took a leap of faith and imagination to call them bodies, though that’s what they were — were placed in black plasticized body bag liners. It was unknown what if any secrets they could still tell, but it was critical that as much as possible be done to preserve what remained of the seven Challenger astronauts.

“It was extremely fortunate that we had Jim Bagian aboard to dive with us and that he is a doctor,” says Devlin. “It was like having a pathologist on the scene.”

Other items from the crew cabin needed to be recovered quickly, also — things like tape recorders and the memory cores of flight-deck computers. In their own way, these items required more careful handling then did the human remains.

“We had large plastic buckets on the fantail, and depending on what item was brought up it would go into one of them,” says Devlin. One contained iced salt water, another iced fresh water, another fresh water at the ambient temperature. Once exposed to the air, much equipment that might contain important information would deteriorate very quickly. It was crucial to keep that exposure to a minimum while also trying to minimize or even reverse the deleterious effects of immersion.

By day’s end, what remained of three astronauts had been recovered, along with some of the flight deck’s instruments. The Preserver headed for Port Canaveral. It arrived at 8:45 p.m.

NASA had a problem — actually, two of them. It had been taking a terrible beating before the presidential commission. Some members of the commission were saying loudly enough to be heard that they didn’t believe a word anybody from NASA was saying. What had begun as an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding a very specific incident had broadened to the point where the space agency’s entire decision-making system was under fire. The faulty O-ring design came to be seen as one small symptom of a terrible disease rampant in the space agency. Hotz, a member of the commission, said that he believed many NASA representatives who testified before the commission had lied. NASA employees were repeatedly warned by Chairman William Rogers that they were under oath.

NASA, which had enjoyed a unique and cozy spot in government, almost above question, was now being made out the bad guy. A nation that had endured civil unrest, assassinations and an unpopular and unsuccessful war had been able at least to point to the space program with pride. No more.

Now there was another, more immediate concern. The country, and indeed the families of the astronauts themselves, had been told that the Challenger crew had been killed instantly, virtually vaporized, when the spacecraft blew up. It was a neat, simple story, and it spared the nation any sense that the astronauts might have suffered. It also spared NASA a painful intensification of what was already a public relations catastrophe. The image of the shuttle crew, conscious, aware of their fate, plunging for 2½ minutes toward the ocean at 200 m.p.h. — and all of it NASA’s fault — was the last thing NASA needed.

Two days earlier, a source told a CBS newsman in New York that Challenger’s crew cabin had been found. This tip was sent through CBS channels to Bruce Hall, a correspondent at Cape Canaveral. Hall asked his NASA sources about it. No, he was told, the cabin disintegrated at the instant of the accident. There was even film that proved it. The correspondent relayed his findings back to New York the evening of March 8, just as the Preserver was making port.

When the truth became known, it looked like a cover-up. In fact, there would be no way to believe that it wasn’t a cover- up.

After all, it had happened before. When a launch pad fire aboard Apollo 204 in January 1967 burned three astronauts to death, NASA said they had died almost instantly. It was only after Betty Grissom, widow of Gus Grissom, filed suit that it became clear that the three struggled in agony for more than a minute.

NASA had been anything but forthcoming in the days following the Challenger disaster. Of course it would look as though they were trying to hide something.

What to do? The agency could come clean at once, take its lumps and get on with its business. Or it could tough it out. Slap a lid on information about the fate of the crew, soft-pedal it whenever possible, try to avoid further damage and hope for the best.

That’s exactly what NASA did. It continued to act as though its official story about the fate of the crew — which some in NASA had believed — was true.

Now there was a boat headed in with bodies aboard it. A plan needed to be formulated.

There is a concept in law called “exclusive jurisdiction.” It specifies who has control over what at federal installations. Certain areas are set aside that are exclusively under federal control, while the remainder are subject to state and local authority as well.

Kennedy Space Center is not an area of exclusive jurisdiction. If there is a traffic accident there (such as took place earlier this year, resulting in a death), local authorities are called in. In this case, that would mean the local medical examiner; NASA would lose control of the bodies and any information they might reveal.

But Patrick Air Force Base, including its base hospital, is an area of exclusive jurisdiction. It is solely under federal government control.

NASA decided: The bodies would have to be moved.

The Preserver tied up at Canaveral Air Force Station the night of March 8. Cmdr. Devlin and astronaut Bagian were spirited away to be debriefed by Col. Robert Overmyer, an astronaut who was pretty much running the operation there. They talked until almost 1 a.m.

The remains were put in large plastic garbage cans and loaded into a blue-gray Navy pickup truck. A top master-sergeant from Patrick was there. A decision had been made to take the remains to the base hospital morgue.

“For one thing, the facilities at Hangar L weren’t completed yet,” says someone with NASA who was there. “But the big reason was that there they’d be safe from the guys at the medical examiner’s office, who had been making all sorts of trouble and all kinds of wild statements.”

Some of those on the scene thought the plan was an unwise one. What if there were an accident? There would be astronaut remains all over the highway! Overmyer’s mind would not be changed. They’re going to Patrick, they’re going this way and they’re going now. Well, others argued, at least take a two-way radio or an escort.


(One witness says he remembers Overmyer actually driving the truck himself, which the former astronaut, now with McDonnell-Douglas, denies. “That’s not true,” he said recently. “I was never the driver or a passenger in any such vehicle. I won’t comment on the rest of it. That would just be opening old wounds.”)

Off went the truck, headed south, followed by a car carrying Bagian and others. The little convoy arrived at Patrick without incident.

By Sunday morning, March 9, reporters at the Cape felt certain something was up. Sure enough, by day’s end the announcement would be made: The bulk of the crew compartment had been found and yes, it contained some remains. Beyond that, NASA said, it would make no statement. It did now want to unduly upset the families of the astronauts, NASA said. This last was a repetition of a policy the space agency had announced within days of the disaster.

When the Preserver had put back to sea early that morning, it carried proper containers for such further remains as might be found: long aluminum boxes of the kind employed when the remains of MIAs are returned from Southeast Asia from time to time. And when the Preserver returned to port, sailors stood at attention as the flag-draped containers were brought in. Some in NASA were angry — it was establishing “too high a profile.” Devlin didn’t care. These were national heroes. Some were military men. They were to be accorded proper respect.

The Preserver finished its work by early April. The vessel had a different skipper by then; in mid-March, Devlin had become the executive officer at the navy’s experimental diving school in Panama City, Fla. Before the Preserver weighed anchor, there had been a minor crisis, under a new commander: As the main portion of the cabin was hoisted to the surface, part of it — containing some human remains — broke away. It couldn’t be located in the murky water.

NASA, in a panic, hired a local scallop boat, the Bigfoot, to drag its dredge over the area until, at last, they found what they were looking for.

Dr. Ron Reeves was beside himself. “You don’t understand,” he told a reporter. “The law doesn’t say we’re allowed to do the autopsies. It says we are required to do them.” NASA now had crew remains, and the Brevard M.E.’s office was being stonewalled.

“The government does this kind of thing, always with no thought as to the outcome,” he said. “Look what happened with John F. Kennedy. Instead of doing the straightforward pathology work right there in Dallas, they did all this cloak-and-dagger stuff and now, 23 years later, there are questions that can never be answered.

“I don’t want somebody coming to me in 20 years and saying that questions still exist about the space shuttle accident because I didn’t do my job.”

The remains were safely stored in the morgue at Patrick, and there was confusion about what would happen next. NASA wanted the autopsies to be done by military doctors from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. This way, the space agency could maintain control over what information would be released. They did not, after all, want pictures of what was left of the astronauts splashed across the covers of the supermarket tabloids, several of which are headquartered only a couple hours’ drive south of the Cape.

There was, unfortunately, the little matter of the Florida medical examiner. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the law gave jurisdiction to the local M.E., so if the waves were to be smoothed, the oiling would have to be done by some good old NASA P.R.

The first thing to do was unruffle the feathers of the chief medical examiner, who had been in the area for some time and who was said to be reasonable. Make him feel important, a part of the big picture — that was the ticket. So, on March 12, NASA issued a press release:

“Brevard County Medical Examiner to Participate

“NASA has confirmed that Brevard County Chief Medical Examiner L.E. McHenry, MD, has been invited to be present during examination of remains of the Challenger crew. As previously stated, NASA does not plan to comment further on the recovery or identification process until that process is complete.”

That calmed things. The AFIP doctors, Cols. Robert McMeekin and Charles Springate, would come down from Maryland and handle the autopsies. It was now safe to bring the remains out of Patrick. NASA helicopter pilot Stan Nelson flew them back to the Cape — Hangar L was now ready — toward the end of the week.

No one from the Brevard Medical Examiner’s office ever would witness any part of the autopsies, by the way. The invitation was withdrawn.

U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson is a young, energetic congressman. His district includes Kennedy Space Center, the homes of the thousands of people who work there for NASA and for NASA’s contractors and subcontractors along “Space Row” — A1A in Cocoa Beach, a thin strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Banana River.

He is a space enthusiast, which is virtually a requirement in an area that refers to itself as the Space Coast and where pictures of spacecraft of various sorts adorn the signs of automobile dealerships and motels.

He is also the only representative ever to have ridden the space shuttle into orbit. He flew the last successful mission, just weeks before the Challenger tragedy. He even wrote a book about it.

Nelson is in an odd position, rather like a cop who is also a baseball fan and who guards the dugout of his favorite team. On one hand, the real players resent it when he portrays himself as almost one of the team himself. On the other hand, he can fix the occasional ticket.

He is held in something very like contempt by at least some astronauts — “Did he tell you how he cured cancer in space?” snorts one — but those at NASA who have an eye on the big picture realize that he can be a very helpful ally, both inside the House of Representatives and out.

Now he got a call from George Abbey, head of the Astronaut Office at NASA, who had been working to keep the lid on. Abbey was a master at dealing with politicians. When a senator or representative needed an astronaut to speak to some local group, Abbey made sure an astronaut was there. He arranged for the space flights of Nelson and Sen. Jake Garn. (In an ironic twist, Gregory Jarvis was bumped from an earlier flight to make room for Garn, and thus came to be on board Challenger on Jan. 28.) If a politician had kids, Abbey would invite the politician and the kids to come have breakfast with the astronauts. This annoyed the hell out of the astronauts.

Abbey told colleagues he was intensely unhappy to discover that, contrary to initial NASA statements, the astronauts may not have been killed instantly. Though the fact was now known to NASA, it had been decided not to share the news with the families just yet. This had some of the astronauts wandering around and scratching their heads, but one quickly learned that if one wanted to fly, it was best not to cross George Abbey. He was, after all, in charge of crew assignments — not that it mattered much for the immediate future.

For the moment, Abbey’s mission was to make sure that Brevard Medical Examiner’s office would sit down and shut up.

“I’m certain his motives were good,” an astronaut says of Abbey. “I think he went about things the wrong way and ultimately hurt the space program. But in this case, he had the best motives. He wanted to protect the families. Unfortunately, what he wanted to protect them from was the truth.”

Could Bill Nelson help? Abbey asked. It was his district, and he had to know the local political figures, and maybe he could have a little talk with this medical examiner fellow.

“After I talked with the Astronaut Office, I was more than happy to do what I could to ease the conflict,” says Nelson. “It would have been terrible to see autopsy reports in the newspaper. I got in touch with the medical examiner and explained the problem.”

“I got a call from the congressman, who said the presidential commission was in charge and didn’t want me to participate,” McHenry says. “So I let it drop.” The presidential commission actually had nothing to do with the autopsies, and when commission members wanted to see the remains of the crew compartment, they had to go over the heads of those in control at KSC to do so.

Dr. Reeves got a call of a different sort.

“Ed Parry [NASA’s legal counsel at KSC] called me and said we were out, by presidential edict. I asked him how the hell that could be. The president can’t simply sign away the authority of local jurisdictions. He said he would get me a copy of the presidential order. He never did.

“It didn’t matter. Those remains were being guarded by guys with M-16s — how were we supposed to get them out?”

Dr. Ronald Wright, the Broward County medical examiner, chuckles. He is not only a highly respected forensic pathologist but also a lawyer. “Of course Dr. McHenry got screwed,” says Wright. “What NASA did was illegal. Against the law. I don’t know how to make it any plainer or what good it will do. The whole thing stinks.”

You won’t get an argument from Reeves. “They asked us to sign death certificates,” he says. “We said under no circumstances would we sign death certificates, because our job was to determine the cause and manner of death, and we had been prevented from doing that.

“They were lying to us, even then. They had already done up their own death certificates.”

The single sheets are headed “CERTIFICATE OF DEATH” and come from Johnson Space Center in Houston. Each is the same:

“This is to certify that on Jan. 28, 1986, at or about 11:39 a.m. EST, and approximately 18 miles off the Atlantic Coast of Florida near the Kennedy Space Center in the County of Brevard, State of Florida, [astronaut’s name], a [sex] person of the age of [age] died when the shuttle spacecraft Challenger in which [he or she] was riding exploded; that such person was a native of [home town] and that the Social Security number of such person was [number].”

They are signed by James S. Logan, chief of the medical operations branch JSC.

They are dated Jan. 30, 1986, except for that of astronaut Judy Resnik. Her last name was misspelled on the original certificate, so an amended one was filed on March 13.

“How the hell can they do that?” asks Reeves. “There is a specific form for death certificates. There are established procedures for certifying deaths when no remains have been recovered — and they hadn’t been on Jan. 30, two days after the accident. These don’t look to be of much use.”

Wright concurs. “They’re legally of no standing at all,” he says.

NASA says the certificates were typed up so that the astronauts’ families could receive whatever insurance or other benefits were due. The certificates were not filed with any state registry of vital statistics. Instead, they were put in a file cabinet at Johnson Space Center. No one seems to know whether real death certificates were ever filed with the proper authorities anywhere, raising the unusual possibility that even now the Challenger crew may not be legally dead.

At NASA, the story about how no information about the remains would be released, out of deference to the families, was wearing thin. NASA kept replaying it. In reality, NASA was trying to get the story straight. This would have been relatively easy if the story had simply been the truth, but that wasn’t what the agency planned.

Adm. Richard Truly, the former astronaut who had gone to run the Navy’s space command, was back at NASA now, and he favored releasing nothing.

Another top NASA official suggested to several people that it would certainly be convenient if some of the data just disappeared. Better to stick to the original story, that the astronauts were killed instantly when the shuttle broke up. Some of the investigators were outraged.

One investigator bitterly recalled being told, “We really don’t need to know that kind of data. Just lose it.”

“There was nothing we could do,” says another. “You have to understand our position. This is the only game in town. If space flight is what you do, NASA is where you have to go to do it.

“Nobody liked what was going on, the things we were being asked to do. But you can’t go public with it, not if you ever want to work anywhere again. Look at Roger Boisjoly, the guy who blew the whistle on the O-rings. He was right. He was praised as a brave man, a hero. And he hasn’t worked since, and probably won’t. Because even if he went to work for a different company, the company management would wonder when he would find something wrong with them. Once you get painted with that brush, you’re out of a career.”

The doctors from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology were told to say nothing.

“I’d like to help you,” Col. Springate told a reporter. “But this is really NASA’s material, so anything that is released will have to come from them.”

At least some of those involved decided among themselves that they wouldn’t lie and wouldn’t destroy evidence. This was not taken well in some quarters at NASA, because two newspapers, The New York Times and The Orlando Sentinel, had filed suit to get certain information. Those suits would be easier to defend if it could be argued that the information simply didn’t exist. (The Times recently won its lawsuit, which sought a copy of the audio tape of the shuttle’s final seconds.)

Even members of the presidential commission were having a hard time getting straight answers out of NASA. “I know they withheld some information,” says Arthur Walker Jr., a member of the commission. “Secretary Rogers [chairman of the commission] advised them not only to provide us with information, but to make that information public in a timely way.

“They did not heed that advice. It doesn’t surprise me that they may have staged the news in a certain way which they might have thought was less traumatic. It certainly is not very inconsistent with other behavior they have displayed.”

At KSC, Bob Crippen was doing his part to keep things buttoned up tight. When members of the press were allowed to look at shuttle debris spread over a hangar floor as part of the reconstruction effort, he ordered the easily recognizable 576 bulkhead, the back wall of the crew compartment, removed from the display before reporters arrived. He didn’t want anyone seeing any part of the crew cabin.

“They never did let anybody see the wreckage from the crew compartment,” says Robert Hotz. “I’ve seen it. [Commission member] Gene Covert and I went over Crippen’s head. We took a look at it and we could see why they were trying to cover it up. It proves very conclusively that the astronauts couldn’t survive a ditching. Yet they had been happily giving the astronauts training in how to survive a ditching when everybody knew it was fatal.”

(A new system aboard the remaining shuttles is designed to provide the possibility of escape before ditching if the shuttle is under full control and at sufficient altitude.)

The investigators continued to fight for the release of at least some information as to the fate of the crew. Finally, they won a partial victory in the form of Dr. Joseph Kerwin’s July 1986 news conference, which revealed some things but certainly not the whole story of what happened to Challenger’s crew. It was then announced that no more information would be forthcoming.

“It made me feel dirty,” says one of the investigators. “I didn’t destroy any information, and I did not witness any being destroyed, but I can’t say it didn’t happen. And I feel as dirty as if I’d done it myself.”

Says an astronaut: “I used to be so proud to say I worked at NASA. Now I’m ashamed to say it.”

Indeed, it seems to have paid off for NASA to hang tough. The furor has died down, and even the information that was released about the fate of the crew was sufficiently ambiguous as to appear inconclusive, when in fact there are some — though not many — in NASA who have known all along that the astronauts died only after a considerable ordeal. Some experts in the field say that because it worked for NASA to hang tough, that’s the course the space agency will probably follow in the future.

“We knew damn well the minute the commission went out of business, NASA would go back to business as usual,” says Hotz. “We have the feeling that nothing much has changed. The problem is not that they’ll get one off. They’ll get one off and maybe two or three, but they’re heading for trouble down the road.”

Another commission member, Robert Rummel, is a little more optimistic.

“I certainly hope NASA will have learned the lessons that were there,” he says. “After the Apollo tragedy, NASA went through a process of reforming itself very effectively, but I think that was lost substantially by the time the shuttle came along.”

Robert Crippen is now essentially in charge of all astronaut-related operations at Kennedy Space Center. Adm. Truly is now NASA’s associate administrator for space flight and heads the entire shuttle program. George Abbey is his assistant. None of the three would agree to an interview; NASA says it will not discuss the Challenger astronauts or their remains at all.

“They got away with it,” says Reeves, who now does private pathology work, chiefly as an expert witness in legal cases.

For months, NASA declined to comment about the substance of this article. Shortly before press time, NASA spokesman Shirley Green said although she was personally unfamiliar with the agency’s handling of the recovery of the Challenger and its crew, she could categorically state that there had been no cover-up and no attempt at cover-up.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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