CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A small parachute seen floating toward the Atlanic Ocean moments after the shuttle Challenger's explosion was not carrying a paramedic in a search for survivors, as originally believed, officials say.
It may have been part of the automatic parachute system used in the recovery system of one of the shuttle's twin solid rocket boosters.
The boosters, designed for reuse and to prevent major damage after they have been discarded by the climbing shuttle, are equipped with a parachute system to slow the rate of descent.
At an altitude of about 15,400 feet, a barometric pressure sensor fires three small thrusters that eject the nose cap of the booster. As the nose cap sails away, a small pilot parachute is deployed to pull a larger stabilizing chute out of the remainder of the nose cone, which is called the frustrum.
Later, the frustrum is automatically fired away from the booster to pull out the three main parachutes. The parachute seen in television shots after Challenger's explosion could have been supporting either a nose cap or a frustrum.
NASA officials would not speculate, but said no paramedics or other emergency personnel parachuted into the impact zone.