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NASA Analyzes Restored Intercom Tapes : Shuttle Crew Held Unaware of Its Fate

July 18, 1986|MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger were unaware of their impending doom before the disastrous explosion that ended the Jan. 28 flight, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Thursday.

Disclosing that damaged tapes from the Challenger's crew compartment had been restored, NASA said: "Preliminary analysis of the tape shows the crew was unaware of the events associated with the tragedy and the internal communications were being maintained as would be expected during a normal ascent."

NASA officials declined to specify why the recordings led them to this conclusion or to describe the conversation of the seven before the explosion of the spacecraft's huge external tank.

Referring to the agency's prepared statement, NASA spokesman Doug Ward said: "It tells you that it (the recording) sounds pretty normal."

Widow Files Suit

The question of whether the astronauts knew of their impending deaths already has figured in a $15.1-million claim filed against NASA by the widow of Challenger pilot Michael J. Smith. The claim seeks damages for personal injury and wrongful death, saying that Smith was "thrown about in the spacecraft and in the few seconds preceding his death, knew of his impending death."

A spokesman for W.F. Maready, the attorney for Smith's widow, Jane, said the loss of pressure in the shuttle's right solid rocket booster before the explosion and the resulting stress on the craft would have alerted the pilot to the looming catastrophe.

NASA officials said the internal intercom system that recorded the astronaut's voices shut off at the same time ground communications were lost--about 74 seconds into flight when the fuel tank exploded. However, the crew cabin emerged relatively intact from the explosion and broke open only when it hit the water--raising questions about whether the crew survived the explosion and died on impact with the ocean.

Preparing Transcript

Ward described the intercom system within the crew cabin as the "astronaut method of note taking." He said NASA investigators are continuing to analyze the tapes, matching voices with crew members and determining the exact times each spoke. A transcript will be completed within the next few days, he said.

"Intercom voices would normally sound a great deal like air to ground communications . . . ," Ward said. "There is a great deal of variability, depending on where the mikes are placed and the noises in the spacecraft cabin. There is a high level of noise in the space craft cabin. There are fans going and blowers and things like that."

The tapes are being analyzed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Divers recovered them from the sea floor off Florida's coast in March near the broken crew compartment and the remains of the astronauts. Although damaged by nearly six weeks of exposure to sea water, the tapes were restored through a neutralizing process at an International Business Machines Corp. laboratory in Tucson, Ariz.

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