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Crew of 7 May Have Lived Through Plunge to Sea

United Press International

The grim salvage of Challenger crew cabin wreckage entered its final stages today, and an aerospace magazine reported that the seven shuttle fliers may have been conscious during a plunge to the sea.

Off the coast of Florida, a salvage vessel conducting an underwater television search for any remaining wreckage from the smashed crew cabin reported its work was finished early today, six weeks to the day after the wreckage was discovered by sonar, but there was no official word on the status of the operation.

Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported today that enhanced photography of the launch shows Challenger’s crew cabin was “severed” cleanly from the rest of the shuttle as the ship broke apart under tremendous aerodynamic forces following the explosion of its external fuel tank.

It then fell 8.9 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. It was not known if the enhanced photography referred to by the magazine was among the batch of videotape released Friday by NASA.

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“There is a consensus developing among NASA engineers and officials who have seen this imagery that the seven-member Challenger crew may not have been subjected to fatal or debilitating G (gravity) loads and that it is likely some or all of them were conscious and aware of the crisis as the crew module fell for three to four minutes until impact,” the magazine said.

“Some managers disagree with this asseessment, however.”

Aviation Week said the nose of the shuttle, containing the crew cabin, flew upward after the explosion then pointed down as it began to fall, slowly rotating.

“The structure itself appears totally intact during the descent although the imagery does not follow the module all the way to water impact,” Aviation Week said.

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