KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The Navy salvage ship Preserver returned to port Wednesday night, reportedly with parts of the shuttle Challenger's flight deck and what may be more remains of the astronauts.
Workers quickly transferred containers from the ship into three ambulances, two of them military vehicles bearing large red crosses. The ambulances then proceeded to a hospital at nearby Patrick Air Force Base, where other body parts were taken after being recovered Saturday.
Also reported aboard the Preserver were an astronaut's personal effects found in a locker and two unused spacesuits, as well as other debris from the shattered shuttle's cabin.
Ship Slips Into Port
The Preserver slipped silently into port, its running lights off and its fantail deck, where debris was stored, covered with canvas. The big vessel docked at Port Canaveral at the Navy's Trident submarine dock, a secure area across a channel away from the public. It had not been expected to return to shore until today.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration would not discuss any aspect of the recovery operation underway off the Atlantic coast of Florida, and would not confirm that crew remains were unloaded from the Preserver.
"We said that we're not going to comment until the recovery and identification is complete," said NASA spokesman Hugh Harris.
Earlier Wednesday, officials said salvage crews had found new debris that may be the rocket section implicated in the deadly Jan. 28 explosion.
If the piece is part of the right solid rocket booster, it would provide key evidence into the failure of a seal believed to have triggered the disaster.
'It May Help Us'
"It may not be the critical evidence," said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Burnette. "But if it is the right solid rocket booster, it may help us pinpoint where the critical evidence is."
The new piece, four feet by five feet and weighing 500 pounds, was found about 37 miles offshore in 650 feet of water. Submarine crew members, including engineers from the firm that makes the rockets, described the debris as part of an aft booster section that has an attachment fitting used to connect it to the external tank. At launch time, the suspect seal was located within a foot of the attachment device.
"Because of the location (at sea) of it, there is a better chance that it's the right solid rocket booster than the left solid rocket booster," Burnette said.
Earlier this week, crews found another rocket piece that officials believe may also be part of the right booster. Engineers are studying photographs and videotapes of both segments to determine their origin.
"We're very hopeful that at least one of the two pieces is going to be from the right solid rocket booster," Burnette said.
Cautioned on Expectations
But a member of the presidential panel investigating the disaster cautioned against expectations that the debris would precisely determine the cause of the explosion.
"Everybody would like to see the booster come out of the water and examine it," said the commissioner, who asked not to be identified. "And there are a lot of people who think that the cause of the accident is going to be determined 100%. But that never really happens. . . . Remember that if it did blow a seal and have a blowout, the joint may be pretty well burned out."
The commissioner said he would like to see NASA reinstall instruments on its shuttles that the agency removed to reduce weight and improve thrust.
"My own view is that when it first flies again, it has to go back from a production program to a flight test program," he said. "There are ways that can be done."
In other developments, a settlement was reached Wednesday in a jurisdictional dispute between the space agency and the Brevard County medical examiner over responsibility for identifying the astronauts' remains. The local medical examiner had sought a joint forensic investigation, citing a Florida law that gives county examiners responsibility for autopsies of accident victims.
"Since the discovery of the Challenger capsule with its human remains, there has been essentially a blackout of communications" from NASA, said Dr. Laudie E. McHenry, the county's chief examiner. He said that NASA representatives and the armed forces' pathologists who arrived here to examine the remains have since toured the county's morgue and autopsy facilities and agreed to permit the county's participation.
A NASA spokesman said earlier Wednesday that the agency will announce identification of the remains "within several days," possibly this week.
The space agency has assembled a team of technicians to examine computer tapes and other recording devices that may be recovered from the crew compartment. The devices would have recorded any conversation among crew members and data about shuttle temperatures and pressures a fraction of a second beyond what was transmitted back to NASA.
In a prepared statement, NASA said that the recorders, if recovered, will be submerged in cool water and cleaned and dried under controlled temperatures and humidity. The agency has successfully used the procedures in the past to treat booster recorders submerged in sea water.
The presidential commission announced it is exploring the possibility of hiring an independent organization to monitor tests of possible failure scenarios of booster components. The tests, conducted in the wake of the Challenger disaster, have been performed primarily by the Marshall Space Flight Center, where officials signed off on the launch despite protests by engineers that the cold weather might cause booster seals to fail.
Small working panels of the commission traveled this week to Marshall, Kennedy Space Center and the Johnson Space Center to investigate such areas as management oversight of safety concerns, flight readiness reviews and Marshall's analysis of what caused the booster seals to rupture.