CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Remains of all seven Challenger astronauts have been identified, a family member said Saturday, and NASA called off the search for crew cabin wreckage, closing a heartbreaking chapter in the shuttle saga.
'Remains of each of the seven Space Shuttle Challenger crew members have been recovered,' a NASA statement said. 'Final forensic work and future planning in accordance with family desires is expected to be completed within the next several days and will be announced when appropriate.'
The announcement Saturday came six weeks to the day after Navy salvage divers working from the USS Preserver first hauled up twisted crew module wreckage from its resting place on the seabed about 16 miles east of Challenger's empty launch pad.
'We talked to NASA yesterday and they said that they've identified all seven of the astronauts,' said Marvin Resnik of Akron, Ohio., father of astronaut Judith Resnik. He made the comments in New York.
He said the remains will be flown from the Kennedy Space Center to an Air Force facility in Dover, Del., around the end of the month for cremation or other treatment before they are returned to the families. NASA would not confirm those plans.
'There are no bodies mind you, there are just bits and pieces,' he said. 'I don't know how I can say that nicely. Even though the cabin aa partially intact, the crew was not. They really were blown apart.'
Rear Adm. Richard Truly, associate administrator for space flight and chief of the shuttle program, said in a statement Saturday that 'recovery operations centered around the retrieval of Space Shuttle Challenger crew cabin have been completed.'
Eight ships participated in the salvage operation along with 50 divers, most of them Navy personnel, who spent a total of 100 hours on the ocean floor.
Truly also praised salvage crews for their role in the grisly operation, conducted by divers who had to battle swift seabed currents in murky water with visibility less than five feet at times.
'I know that I can speak for the families and all of NASA in conveying our admiration for this job well done,' Truly said.
Shuttle salvage continued at sea Saturday with ships and submarines concentrating on recovering wreckage from Challenger's right-side booster, the one that failed Jan. 28 destroying the shuttle and killing the astronauts.
On board were commander Francis 'Dick' Scobee, co-pilot Michael Smith, Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, satellite engineer Gregory Jarvis and New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first 'ordinary citizen' to ride a space shuttle.
A National Transportation and Safety Board investigator said the nose of the shuttle, containing the split-level crew cabin, broke from the disintegrating spaceship relatively intact after the explosion and plummeted to the ocean 8.9 miles below in one large piece.
Sources familiar with the investigation said the cabin was crushed on impact in the ocean and that the wreckage made a compressed mound 6 feet to 8 feet high. Little of the debris was clearly recognizable, the sources said.
The main body of crew cabin debris was tentatively identified on March 7 and the next day, Navy salvage divers hauled up the first wreckage and, possibly, human remains from 'site 67.' On March 9, NASA announced the wreckage had been positively identified and that crew remains were present.
Sources said the USS Preserver, a Navy salvage vessel, returned to port on at least three occasions bearing astronaut remains. The commercial salvage vessel G.W. Pierce made the last such trip Tuesday when remains of civilian shuttle flier Jarvis were brought to shore, sources said.
'The last one was Jarvis, yes, contrary to what was reported that ... it was Christa,' Marvin Resnik said. 'It's definitely not true. She was identified pretty close to right away.'
More than 75 percent of the crew cabin was recovered by the Preserver between March 8 and April 4.
Heavy weather then hampered the salvage operation, depositing a layer of silt over remaining debris. Navy experts then told NASA that any remaining significant wreckage in the crash site would be difficult to recover and that continued salvage operations would not be fruitful.
But the space agency refused to close the books on the operation because, sources said, some remains apparently were known to have eluded recovery.
A commercial scallop boat named 'Big Foot' was called in to sift through the sandy bottom with fine-mesh nets and more debris was found by the crew of a small submarine conducting a television sweep of the area on April 7.
Five days later, a robot submersible making an extensive television sweep located more wreckage and on Tuesday, sources said divers recovered Jarvis'remains. Final wreckage was hauled up Friday.