The remains of Challenger’s seven crew members departed this now-silent launch site Tuesday aboard an Air Force jet transport, lifting off from the same landing strip where the doomed shuttle was to have completed its seven-day mission.
There were no speeches and little fanfare as the flag-draped coffins were placed aboard the C-141 Starlifter for the flight to a military mortuary in Delaware.
Later in the day, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that it had recovered another burned section of the aft joint on Challenger’s faulty right solid rocket booster. The discovery of the key part ended the search for rocket debris exactly 13 weeks after the shuttle exploded and offered investigators their best hope of pinning down what went wrong with the rocket.
As the seven-hearse cortege rolled the eight miles from the hangar where the remains had been kept to the shuttle airfield, hundreds of NASA workers lined the roadway to bid farewell, many with tears.
The crew’s remains were carried aboard the transport by Air Force pallbearers in snappy blue uniforms, black berets and white gloves. A six-member color guard, bearing fluttering flags of the United States, the Navy, the Air Force and NASA, stood at attention near the plane’s cargo door as a dozen or so high-ranking civilian and military dignitaries saluted each passing coffin.
Each coffin was escorted by an astronaut. The seven escorts were chosen because they had served as escorts for their dead comrades’ families before the Jan. 28 launch.
Civilian satellite engineer Gregory B. Jarvis was carried aboard first, followed by New Hampshire high school teacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first “ordinary citizen” to fly on a shuttle.
Next came Ronald E. McNair, followed by Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, co-pilot Michael J. Smith and commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee.
The huge cargo plane circled once over the space center in a traditional salute and then headed north.
Smith will be buried Saturday with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. Scobee will be interred at Arlington May 19.
Onizuka’s family has said his remains will be returned to his Hawaiian home for burial. McNair will be buried May 17 in his hometown of Lake City, S.C. Jarvis’ family said his remains will be cremated and his ashes scattered in the Pacific from a sailboat off his home in Hermosa Beach.
Funeral plans for the remaining crew members have not been disclosed. A spokesman for McAuliffe’s family said Monday that details of her funeral service will not be announced.
NASA officials are still trying to determine the exact cause of the deaths.
Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly, chief of the shuttle program, said in a statement Friday that examinations of the remains by military pathologists “have not revealed any conclusive evidence about either cause or time of death.”
“Further, the wreckage examination task is complicated by the amount of damage done at water impact,” he added. Although photographs indicate that the crew cabin emerged intact from the explosion, many experts believe that the crew died almost instantly either from the force of the explosion or the rapid decompression of the cabin.
The joint section, which was retrieved from 600 feet of water Monday, will be matched with the upper section of the suspect joint, which was recovered several weeks ago. Both sections exhibit the same jagged flame-through, which may enable experts to trace the burn patterns that could tell them what went wrong.
“With this recovery, NASA has announced, with concurrence of the presidential commission, that the underwater recovery of solid rocket booster components is complete,” a space agency statement said.
The commission appointed by President Reagan to determine the cause of the accident is scheduled to submit its report by June 6.
The neighboring “Space Coast” communities have memorialized the fallen space voyagers, rechristening a Merritt Island bridge as the Christa McAuliffe Memorial Bridge. McAuliffe’s name will also grace one of the two new Brevard County elementary schools opening this fall; the other will be known as Challenger 7 Elementary School.