The recovery crew's comments came as the presidential shuttle commission announced in Washington that other diving teams on Sunday recovered the top portion of the right-side rocket booster joint whose failure is suspected of causing the Challenger explosion. The joint had a hole burned through it, the
"One of the two sections of critical interest" was recovered, a statement by commission chairman William P. Rogers said. "A burnt-out area of the joint . . . is evident, " the statement said.
The 10-by-20-foot piece of rocket booster was described as weighing between one and two tons. A Navy spokeswoman at Cape Canaveral, Fla., said that flames had burned a one-by-two-foot hole through the steel casing at the joint.
The other key piece, the bottom of the joint, has not been located. The piece was recovered from 560 feet of water Sunday morning by the salvage ship Stena Workhorse operating 35 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral.
Engineers believe that a leak in the seam between the bottom and the second segment of the rocket booster allowed white-hot gas and flame to escape, eventually severing the bottom booster attachment and causing the top of the booster to swivel into the large external fuel tank, setting off the explosion.
The Preserver steamed into its home port at the Naval Amphibious Base near Norfolk, Va., early yesterday, its two-month mission off the Florida coast officially over. But for the crew members, who spoke publicly about the secrecy-shrouded operation for the first time yesterday, the recovery of Challenger will not be forgotten.
Diver First Class Thomas Stock, who went down to the wreckage, described it as a heap of rubble, about eight feet at its highest, spread around a circular area 60 feet to 75 feet across. An intact crew compartment, a three- tier reinforced vessel within the orbiter, measures about 17 1/2 feet high, 16 1/2 feet long and 16 1/2 feet wide.
The cabin "was not really recognizable, " said Stock. "A pile of rubble with a lot of electrical wiring coming out of it. It wasn't intact at all."
The remains of the astronauts were all within the rubble, Stock said. Out of deference to the families of the astronauts, the divers would not provide a detailed description of the condition of the remains, which had been in the water for more than a month.
Investigators believe the crew compartment emerged essentially intact
from the fireball that ripped Challenger apart but was crushed when it hit the water after plummeting nine miles at 140 to 180 m.p.h. It is believed that the astronauts died in the shock wave of the blast.
Chief diver James Starcher said scuba divers scouted the wreck, while recovery divers worked with air supplied from the ship.
The Preserver began its effort to recover the cabin on March 7, after another ship located the wreckage in 87 feet of water, 18 nautical miles off the Florida coast.
The cabin recovery took three weeks, as pieces of wreckage were hauled up with lines or baskets lowered from the ship. "It was debris, it was wreckage, " said Honey. "There was nothing discernible about it. We had experts aboard to identify it."
Stock said that initially the operation was no different from any other salvage job. "When you're working down there, you don't really think about it, " he said.
Then the Preserver brought the first remains into port. It was nighttime, and a flag-draped coffin lay on the fantail of the ship, flanked by an honor guard.
"When we came in the first time, it was deadly silent, " said Stock. ''You got the feeling that everybody on the ship realized what had happened. It didn't really hit you until you came in at night with the bodies."
The decision to bring the remains in with military honors was made by the ship's previous skipper, Lt. Cmdr. John Devlin. Honey, who was on board preparing to replace Devlin, said it was done out of respect.
The display of ceremony rankled NASA, which had sought to prevent release of any information about the condition of the crew. But Starcher said the Challenger crew was treated no differently than military dead would be.
"Whether it's a pilot or anyone, it's handled the same way, " he said.
Honey said that a NASA doctor aboard identified the remains as those of humans.
The Preserver brought back five caskets of remains on its first trip back to port, said Honey. Two more caskets were brought in later.