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The remains of Challenger's seven astronauts, apparently recovered from...

By WILLIAM HARWOOD, UPI Science Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The remains of Challenger's seven astronauts, apparently recovered from the submerged wreckage of their mangled crew cabin, will be examined at a NASA research facility for identification, officials said Thursday.

Remains of some of the shuttle fliers are believed to have been brought to shore late Wednesday by the crew of the USS Preserver, a Navy salvage ship, but NASA will neither confirm nor deny such reports.

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The Navy, however, acknowledged Thursday that when the Preserver pulled into Port Canaveral under cover of darkness, an honor guard was stationed on deck in front of a mound of debris from the shuttle's blasted crew cabin.

'To impress upon the crew and the personnel at the port the solemnity of the occasion, the commanding officer ... opted to set a guard to honor and protect the contents and parts of the orbiter Challenger's crew compartment,' said Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Burnette, a Navy spokeswoman.

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In another development, Burnette said underwater videotapes of wreckage that could include the suspect rocket booster joint that ruptured Jan. 28 to send Challenger to its doom were being analyzed.

The rupture occurred in the shuttle's right-hand solid-fuel rocket at a joint connecting the lower two of four fuel segments. The videotape of the wreckage referred to by Burnette shows part of the joint is damaged but it is not yet known which of Challenger's rockets the wreckage came from.

The Preserver returned to sea Thursday to recover more crew compartment wreckage, but high seas forced the World War II-era vessel to return to port. Other salvage operations were hampered as well and more of the same was expected Friday.

'To impress upon the crew and the personnel at the port the solemnity of the occasion, the commanding officer ... opted to set a guard to honor and protect the contents and parts of the orbiter Challenger's crew compartment,' said Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Burnette, a Navy spokeswoman.

In another development, Burnette said underwater videotapes of wreckage that could include the suspect rocket booster joint that ruptured Jan. 28 to send Challenger to its doom were being analyzed.

The rupture occurred in the shuttle's right-hand solid-fuel rocket at a joint connecting the lower two of four fuel segments. The videotape of the wreckage referred to by Burnette shows part of the joint is damaged but it is not yet known which of Challenger's rockets the wreckage came from.

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Richard P. Feynman, a member of the presidential commission probing the diaster, said investigators had ruled out the ship's external tank as a possible cause of the explosion and that nearly all efforts now center on the right solid-fuel booster rocket joints.

'The design of that joint is hopeless,' Feynman said during a visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He added that record cold temperature at launch time apparently played a role in the disaster.

The Preserver returned to sea Thursday to recover more crew compartment wreckage, but high seas forced the World War II-era vessel to return to port. Other salvage operations were hampered as well and more of the same was expected Friday.

Other crew remains were brought ashore under the cover of darkness over the weekend, sources said, and at least three ambulances met the Preserver Wednesday, racing away 30 minutes later with their lights flashing.

They were spotted later at nearby Patrick Air Force Base, but they were empty.

The space agency, which has refused to discuss any aspect of the crew cabin salvage operation, released a statement Thursday that said astronauts' remains will be examined at the NASA Life Science Support Facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station next to the Kennedy Space Center.

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Known as 'Hangar L,' the facility is equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment and is designed primarily to prepare animal and plant specimans for space flights.

NASA officials said no information about the recovery of the crew cabin debris or the astronauts will be released until after crew identifications are complete and it was not known how long that might take.

'I don't think anybody has the answer to that,' said NASA spokesman Hugh Harris.

A source close to the investigation said a large refrigerator from Hangar L was aboard the Preserver to store any human remains recovered in the salvage operation.

When Preserver returned to port Wednesday, an object that appeared to be draped with a flag was seen on deck but it looked too large to be a coffin and its identity was not known.

The astronaut autopsies and identifications will be carried out by Armed Forces Institute of Pathology personnel. The Brevard County medical examiner also will participate.

Most of the debris recovered Wednesday was from Challenger's smashed flight deck, a source said.

Riding on the flight deck at launch were commander Francis 'Dick' Scobee, co-pilot Michael Smith and astronauts Judith Resnik and Ellison Onizuka. Below on the cabin's middeck were astronaut Ronald McNair, satellite engineer Gregory Jarvis and New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe.

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Debris from the middeck, including the contents of crew lockers, was recovered earlier in the salvage operation, indicating the cabin was blown open either by the explosion or on impact in the ocean.

Among the wreckage of the cabin salvage crews hope to recover are flight computers and recorders that may have key data stored that can be retrieved to shed light on the final seconds of Challenger's life.

One recorder was dedicated to receiving data from sensors in the spaceship that monitored accelerations and forces acting on the shuttle during launch. Retrieving data from this recorder could show how Challenger broke apart after the explosion.

The crew autopsies had been scheduled for the Patrick Air Force Base Hospital, but 'after an examination of the requirements and options, it was determined that the Life Science Facility best met the requirements,' the NASA statement said.

At one point, the searchers said the spacesuits carried in Challenger's airlock had been found.

'We're doing a heavy lift, and entangled in the (debris) was a space suit, a white space suit,' a crewman said. 'Of course the space suit was empty.'

On shore, questions were raised about who has the authority to conduct crew autopsies -- federal pathologists or the local medical examiner, who reportedly was miffed that his office was not actively involved in the investigation from the start.

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But Brevard County Medical Examiner Loudie McHenry said in a statement that 'in lieu of many false and controversial statements by governmental agencies and news media,' he was in contact with NASA and Air Force officials Monday about the investigation.

He said all parties agreed to a joint investigation and that he was told by telephone Wednesday that a representative of his office could take part in the investigation, as required by Florida law.

At sea, the crew of a vessel supporting search operations with a four-man submarine reported finding what appeared to be a large piece of wreckage from a rocket booster jammed into the ocean floor.

'It is very solidly embedded into the sea floor,' searchers said. 'The submarine bounced into it with the currents, there's a pretty heavy current in the area, and it did not budge.'

In an earlier development, Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Burnette said the crew of the four-man submarine photographed rocket wreckage that could be from the area where a rupture occurred on Challenger's right-hand solid-fuel booster. That could be the most significant find yet in the six-week-old salvage bid.

The rupture, at or near a joint between the lower two of the booster's four fuel segments, triggered the explosion of Challenger's giant external fuel tank 73 seconds after blastoff on Jan. 28, killing the seven crew members.

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The crew of the Johnson-Sea-Link 2, a privately operated submarine, took pictures of booster wreckage Tuesday that is from an aft fuel segment of a solid rocket booster. The debris includes the attachment fitting that once held the 14-story rocket to the ship's fuel tank.

Burnette said while an analysis of the photographs had not been completed, the location of the wreckage, in about 650 feet of water 32 miles offshore, appeared to indicate it was from the right-hand booster rocket.

If so, recovery could provide NASA investigators with crucial evidence to help determine what caused the worst disaster in space history.

'Even if it turns out not to be from that particular segment it is still significant because any ... debris from the right-side booster helps us establish a debris pattern, which we don't have yet,' Burnette said.

Closer to shore, the grim search for the remains of the Challenger seven and the wreckage of their cabin continued.

Divers from the USS Preserver, a Navy salvage ship with cranes capable of lifting up to 10 tons, descended into the wreckage area early Wednesday and located two of the shuttle's emergency spacesuits.

Shuttle astronauts do not wear spacesuits during launch and the two reported found Wednesday were on board in case an emergency in orbit required a spacewalk.

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