Challenger astronauts autopsy

March 6, 2016
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From Tropic, the Miami [FL] Herald Sunday magazine, 13 November 1988

First came the bang. Then...silence. A story about catastrophe and coverup.

There was no moon early the morning of March 9, 1986, and at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station the breeze was ominous. A storm would arrive in a couple of days - it was building - and it added to the uneasiness the sailors already felt.

They had been in port with their cargo, if that was the word, for three or four hours now. The skipper and the other guy he'd been diving with that day, the astronaut, had gone off for a debriefing with a Marine colonel, the one who was over there now, arguing with a security guard. Everyone felt...yes, spooky was indeed the word. Though the crew of the USS Preserver was accustomed to duty of this nature, this was somehow...different. The gallows humor didn't have its biting edge, and it simply trailed off, unanswered. It was the grimmest night in a business where grim nights are common.

The three black, plastic-coated fabric bags were unloaded, put first into 30-gallon plastic garbage cans, then into the back of an open-bed U.S. Navy pickup truck. The colonel and the guard were still arguing. What if there were a wreck? Can you imagine? Those garbage cans would go flying and pop open - the thought was unbearable.

There are nightclubs up and down the beachfront highway, A1A, that links Cape Canaveral and Patrick Air Force Base, 25 miles to the south. It was now well after midnight, Saturday night. The road was always heavily traveled, and at this hour the standard of driving would not be high.

Too bad. The colonel was unswayed. The risk had to be taken. The truck would be less conspicuous, less suspicious-looking, than a helicopter or a more substantial military vehicle, an the whole idea was to avoid the press. And the local examiner.

The pickup truck headed out on its 40-minute journey.

Drivers on A1A that night and morning, those who could still focus their eyes, probably didn't much notice the Navy truck. Military vehicles are common in that part of Florida. Nor could they have guessed that it carried something everyone in the country had speculated about at one time or another during the past six weeks.

On the truck, in the garbage cans, were the bodies of three astronauts from the space shuttle Challenger.

"That's a minor horror story, " says Robert B. Hotz, a member of the presidential commission that investigated the accident. "There are some major horror stories, about the way they tried to cover up the whole thing. There are a lot of unanswered questions."

It had been a disaster in every way a thing could be a disaster. When the great puffy yellow fire-explosion broke the Challenger to pieces, NASA, back on the ground, was itself already fractured. Its administrator, James Beggs, had recently resigned while under indictment on charges of overcharging the defense department while he was a private contractor. (He was later cleared.) There was a new director of public affairs, Shirley Green, from George Bush's office.

The space agency had become a bit of a laughing stock as well. The shuttle program was long behind schedule - the Challenger flight, designated, STS-51L, was to have been launched in July, 1985, for example - and postponements were far more frequent than launches. Customers, people with satellites to launch or retrieve, were fed up, and NASA was frantic to keep them happy.

But it wasn't only customers who were dissatisfied. The delays had hurt NASA where they had always been strongest: public relations. Politicians were no longer falling all over themselves to heap on the praise.

Each year, the White House sends a form letter to government agencies as part of its preparation for the State of the Union Address. The letter asks the agencies what they are doing that might be worthy of mention in the address. NASA's public affairs machine cranked out a glowing account of the shuttle program and noted that, even as the president spoke, the nation's first schoolteacher-in-orbit would be circling the Earth.

A couple of lines about the space program were included in an early draft of the address, but soon even they were excised. "The people at NASA were upset about this, " says Hotz. "They wanted back into the speech."

Whether eagerness to be mentioned by the president the night of Jan. 28 resulted in a corresponding eagerness to launch that day despite unfavorable weather conditions remains unclear.

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