MIAMI — The crew compartment of the space shuttle Challenger, with the remains of astronauts aboard, has been found 100 feet beneath the sea off the coast of Florida, NASA officials announced Sunday.
Sonar equipment tentatively identified the crew compartment Friday afternoon and family members of the five men and two women, who died in the U.S. space program's worst disaster, were notified of the possible find. The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 28.
"On Saturday morning, after securing operations during the night for safety reasons, the USS Preserver, whose divers are thoroughly briefed on debris identification and who have participated in similar recovery operations, began to work," read a National Aeronautics and Space Administration statement distributed at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.
'Deference to Families'
"Subsequent dives provided positive identification of Challenger crew compartment debris and the existence of crew remains."
NASA officials would not say if the entire crew, including New Hampshire high school teacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe, was still inside the split-level cabin nor would they comment on the condition of the module.
"We really don't want to say anything else in deference to the families," NASA spokeswoman Shirley Green said in Washington.
While the condition of the compartment was not known, sources said it appeared to be relatively intact. Debris from inside the cabin, including personal effects from crew lockers, has already been recovered, however, indicating that it probably is ruptured.
Among those personal effects, all found on the surface of the ocean, were astronaut flight helmets and some of the contents of McAuliffe's locker, including material for her teacher-in-space project.
The exact location of the module was not given for security reasons, according to the brief NASA announcement, which was approved by Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly, associate administrator for spaceflight. Depending on the conditions of the weather and the sea, recovery of the crew compartment could take several days, NASA said.
"Local security measures are being taken to assure that the recovery operations can take place in a safe and orderly manner," the statement said.
Identification of Crew
"Assistance in positive identification of crew will be provided by Armed Forces Institute of Pathology personnel located at the Patrick Air Force Base Hospital."
The base is 25 miles south of Cape Canaveral.
The crew module is a 2,525-cubic-foot pressurized cabin in the front of the shuttle.
At blastoff, McAuliffe was strapped into a chair in the compartment's mid-deck. To her left was engineer Ellison S. Onizuka. To her right was engineer Gregory B. Jarvis.
In the forward seats of the upper flight deck were mission commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee and pilot Michael J. Smith. Behind them sat engineer Judith A. Resnik and laser physicist Ronald E. McNair.
Mark Weinberg, a spokesman for the presidential commission investigating the shuttle explosion, said he could not comment on the significance of the find to the commission's probe.
"I would not want to characterize its importance. That's to be determined. Clearly all pieces of evidence are important," he said.
Recovery of the crew compartment probably will not answer the perplexing questions about why Challenger's launch became a disaster. Wreckage of the shuttle's right solid-fuel booster rocket is believed to be the key to understanding the tragedy in space.
Photographs of the Challenger launch show a puff of black smoke spewing from the booster milliseconds after the spacecraft's engines were ignited and a spurt of flame pouring from the same area 15 seconds before the explosion.
The smoke and flame appeared near a joint between the bottom two segments of the solid fuel rocket.
Debris scattered across the sky after the explosion. Some of it landed on the sandy shore, luring the curious to comb the beaches. But the bulk of the wreckage splashed into the Atlantic, sinking to the bottom or drifting north with the Gulf Stream.
Officials said tracking radar detected 14 large objects falling toward the ocean immediately after the fiery detonation, including the shuttle's twin booster rockets, which continued to fire until safety officers beamed up self-destruct commands when one appeared to be heading back for the coast.
Salvage efforts so far have yielded only 10% of Challenger's 126-ton bulk.
Wreckage recovered to date includes blasted fragments of a satellite booster that was riding in Challenger's payload bay, parts of the ship's wings and fuselage and all three of the shuttle's powerhouse main engines.
The massive search for debris--now nearly six weeks old--includes 11 surface ships, two manned submarines and three robot submersibles.