CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA may bury wreckage from the shuttle Challenger in an abandoned Minuteman missile silo next year but recovered mementos carried aloft by the ill-fated crew will be returned to their owners, officials said Wednesday.
Air Force Col. Edward O'Connor, who directed the search for shuttle wreckage, told UPI he has proposed to NASA management that Challenger's remains be stored in one or two 90-foot-deep abandoned Minuteman silos at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station near the Kennedy Space Center.
Thomas Utsman, acting director of the Kennedy Space Center, said the not-yet-approved plan would accomplish two objectives: the security at the base would prevent any pieces of the shuttle from ever getting out of hand but at the same time, engineers would retain access to the debris if necessary.
A NASA statement said recovered souvenirs carried by Challenger's seven dead astronauts will be presented to 'specific institutions or organizations.'
Among the momentos were various flags and patches, a soccer ball, a football, various pennants, a diploma, copies of the Constitution and a variety of emblems and patches.
It was not known which of the 87 items carried aloft on the shuttle as part of the 'official flight kit' were found and brought ashore by salvage crews, although 95 percent of Challenger's crew cabin was recovered.
In addition, NASA said personal items carried by the crew members will be returned to family members.
NASA said the personal items carried by the astronauts included a baby shoe, a cross, a Girl Scout pin, a family photograph, a variety of pieces of gold jewelry, a meteorite, Naval aviation wings, a sand dollar, a stuffed animal, a Virginia Military Academy ring, and 14 gold and 53 silver medallions commemorating the mission.
The agency declined to say who carried what or which items had been recovered, but said the personal items that were found were picked up Jan. 29, which means their containers were floating in the ocean.
Killed in the accident were Francis 'Dick' Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and school teacher Christa McAuliffe.
Each state will be presented with a crew patch and a United States flag and one memento will be presented to the National Air and Space Museum. Any souvenirs not on board for a specific individual or institution will be permanently stored by NASA.
'Since our space program is the nation's program, all its people should have a reminder of the Challenger and its crew,' said NASA Administrator James Fletcher.
'I believe that providing a suitable remembrance to each state and territory as well as our Natonal Air and Space Museum serves this purpose.'
The wreckage recovered so far during the seven-month search for shuttle debris on the Atlantic Ocean bottom currently is stored in various hangars at the Kennedy Space Center and the Air Force station.
O'Connor said all the wreckage from the shuttle's two solid-fuel rocket boosters had been located and 50 percent was recovered. Some 55 percent of the shuttle itself was located during the search and about 45 percent was returned to shore.
Of the two satellites on board, O'Connor said 95 percent of the Spartan Halley science observatory was recovered along with significant pieces of a $100 million shuttle tracking satellite, thanks to recent offshore finds by the crews of three shuttle booster recovery ships.
As for using the Minuteman silos to store shuttle debris, O'Connor said his proposal offered a low-cost solution to the problem.
'I said I would look for a close by place to store this (wreckage),' he said. 'Putting on my Air Force hat I said gee whiz, I know of some old missile sites over on the cape side that may be potential candidates.
'They agreed they could offer up two Minuteman tubes over there and some old blockhouses. That has not been agreed to by NASA headquarters. We're doing preliminary engineering work but a lot of considerations have to be made before a final site selection.'
The two silos are roughly 15 feet wide and 90 feet deep. O'Connor said if the plan is approved, the shuttle wreckage probably would be transferred early next year.