NEW YORK — The Americans who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia were eligible for the standard life insurance offered to military personnel and federal employees, but NASA carried no special coverage specifically for astronauts, officials say.
"There is a limit on what type of benefits the federal government provides," said NASA spokeswoman Eileen Hawley.
"We look at this as larger than a monetary issue," she said. "We are committed to helping these families and we have a support network. They are ... going to be part of the NASA family."
Five of the astronauts were members of the U.S. military and eligible for coverage under service members group life insurance, which has a standard death benefit of $250,000. The monthly premium ranges from $20 for the maximum coverage to 80 cents for a reduced coverage of $10,000. There is no increased payment for military members if the death is work-related.
NASA and military officials would not disclose if the five had elected coverage and at what level.
The military does provide the surviving spouse $935 a month, plus an additional $234 per child until age 18. It also provides other benefits such as $6,000 in cash for immediate needs and up to $6,900 for burial costs and housing allowances. These benefits are provided regardless of how the service member died.
NASA provides the surviving spouse half the deceased's salary, plus $24,354 annually -- but that applies only to the lone civilian astronaut, Kalpana Chawla. NASA is not disclosing salaries of the victims, but the agency says an astronaut's salary can range from $56,247 to $86,974.
As a NASA employee, Chawla was eligible for coverage under Federal Employees Group Life Insurance, which provides basic coverage equal to the individual's annual salary, plus $2,000. It allows the worker to increase coverage up to $200,000 by paying more in premiums.
NASA officials said they believe Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, the only non-American aboard Columbia when the shuttle broke apart Feb. 1, would have had life insurance coverage through his service in the Israeli Air Force, but had no details. Israel's Defense Department declined to comment.
The 12 children of the Columbia astronauts will also be able to receive assistance from the Space Shuttle Children's Trust Fund. The private, nonprofit fund raised about $1.2 million after the 1986 Challenger explosion to provide for the needs of the astronauts' children.