By William Harwood

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Editor's Note...
Many misconceptions remain regarding the fate of Challenger's crew. The following is intended to give readers a detailed look at the facts of the matter. Any interpretation after that is, of course, up to the reader.


"NASA is unable to determine positively the cause of death of the Challenger astronauts but has established that it is possible, but not certain, that loss of consciousness did occur in the seconds following the orbiter breakup." NASA Press Release

"We have now turned our full efforts to the future, but will never forget our seven friends who gave their lives to America's space frontier." - Rear Adm. Richard Truly, Associate Administrator for Space Flight

The Rogers Commission did not discuss the fate of the crew or provide much detail about the crew cabin wreckage. Indeed, all references to "contact 67," the crash site of the crew compartment, were deleted from the official record, including charts that mapped various debris areas. This was done, perhaps, to preclude the possibility that anyone could find out the latitude and longitude of the cabin wreck site for diving and personal salvage. But ultimately, it was simply an extension of NASA's policy of no comment when it came to the astronauts. After all, hundreds of reporters knew the exact coordinates by eavesdropping on Navy radio. In any case, while the astronauts were not discussed in the commission report, the crew module was.

Analysis of crew cabin wreckage indicates the shuttle's windows may have survived the explosion. It is thus possible the crew did not experience high-altitude cabin decompression. If so, some or all of the astronauts may have been alive and conscious all the way to impact in the Atlantic some 18 miles northeast of the launch pad. The cabin hit the water at better than 200 mph on Scobee's side. The metal posts of the two forward flight deck seats, for example, were bent sharply to the right by force of impact when the cabin disintegrated.

"The internal crew module components recovered were crushed and distorted, but showed no evidence of heat or fire," the commission report said. "A general consistency among the components was a shear deformation from the top of the components toward the +Y (to the right) direction from a force acting from the left. Components crushed or sheared in the above manner included avionics boxes from all three avionics bays, crew lockers, instrument panels and the seat frames from the commander and the pilot. The more extensive and heavier crush damage appeared on components nearer the upper left side of the crew module. The magnitude and direction of the crush damage indicates that the module was in a nose down and steep left bank attitude when it hit the water.

"The fact that pieces of forward fuselage upper shell were recovered with the crew module indicates that the upper shell remained attached to the crew module until water impact. Pieces of upper forward fuselage shell recovered or found with the crew module included cockpit window frames, the ingress/egress hatch, structure around the hatch frame and pieces of the left and right sides. The window glass from all of the windows, including the hatch window, was fractured with only fragments of glass remaining in the frames."

Several large objects were tracked by radar after the shuttle disintegrated. One such object, classified as "Object D," hit the water 207 seconds after launch about 18 nautical miles east of launch pad 39B. This apparently was the crew cabin. "It left no trail and had a bright white appearance (black and white recording) until about T+175 seconds," an appendix to the Rogers Commission report said. "The image then showed flashes of both white and black until T+187 seconds, after which time it was consistently black. The physical extent of the object was estimated from the TV recording to be about 5 meters." This description is consistent with a slowly spinning crew module, which had black heat-shield tiles on its bottom with white tiles on its side and top.

The largest piece of crew cabin wreckage recovered was a huge chunk of the aft bulkhead containing the airlock hatch that led into the payload bay and one of the two flight deck windows that looked out over the cargo hold. The bulkhead wreckage measured 12 feet by 17 feet.

Here is a chronology of the crew cabin recovery operation and the efforts to determine the fate of the astronauts:


  • Mid-March - Four astronaut "personal egress air packs," called PEAPs, are recovered along with other cabin wreckage.
  • April 18 - NASA announced the crew cabin recovery operation was complete and that identifiable remains of all seven astronauts were on shore undergoing analysis.
  • April 25 - The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology notified NASA it had been unable to determine a cause of death from analysis of remains. Joseph Kerwin, director of life sciences at the Johnson Space Center, began an in-depth analysis of the wreckage in a search for the answer.
  • May 20 - Johnson Space Center crew systems personnel began analysis of the four PEAPs, emergency air packs designed for use if a shuttle crew must attempt an emergency exit on the ground when dangerous vapors might be in the area.
  • May 21 - Investigators found evidence some of the PEAPs had been activated.
  • June 4 - Investigators determined PEAP activation was not caused by crew cabin impact in the ocean.
  • June 9 - Smith's PEAP was identified by serial number.
  • June 25 - The PEAPs were sent to th Army Depot in Corpus Christi, Texas, for further analysis.
  • June 27 - Scobee's PEAP was identified by serial number; Army investigators determined that three of the four air packs had been activated.
  • July 18 - Truly received Kerwin's preliminary report on the fate of the astronauts. On July 24, NASA began informing the astronauts' families about what the investigation had found.

Some of the first wreckage recovered included four flight computers and both the cabin's operational flight recorders, used to record data about various shuttle systems and also used for the cabin's intercom system. It was on this tape that NASA heard Smith say "Uh oh" an instant before the shuttle broke apart, showing that at least some of the astronauts had a brief moment of awareness before the explosion that would claim their lives.

On July 28, six months to the day after the disaster, NASA staged a news conference in Washington to discuss the investigation. Kerwin said the cause and time of death remained unknown.

"The findings are inconclusive," he wrote in a letter to Truly. "The impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was so violent that evidence of damage occurring in the seconds which followed the explosion was masked. Our final conclusions are:


  • The cause of death of the Challenger astronauts cannot be positively determined;
  • The forces to which the crew were exposed during orbiter breakup were probably not sufficient to cause death or serious injury; and
  • The crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following orbiter breakup due to in-flight loss of crew module pressure."

Accelerometers, instruments that measure the magnitude and direction of forces acting on the shuttle during flight, lost power when the nose section ripped away two tenths of a second after structural break up began. Independent analysis of all recovered data and wreckage concluded the nose pitched down as soon as it broke away and then slowed rapidly from aerodynamic forces. Calculations and analysis of launch photography indicate the acceleration forces the astronauts felt were between 12 and 20 times the force of gravity in a vertical direction, that is, as the cabin broke away, the astronauts were violently pushed down in their seats.

"These accelerations were quite brief," Kerwin wrote. "In two seconds, they were below four G's; in less than 10 seconds, the crew compartment was essentially in free fall. Medical analysis indicates that these accelerations are survivable, and that the probability of major injury to crew members is low."

When Challenger broke up, it was traveling at 1.9 times the speed of sound at an altitude of 48,000 feet. The crew module continued flying upward for some 25 seconds to an altitude of about 65,000 feet before beginning the long fall to the ocean. From breakup to impact took two minutes and 45 seconds. Impact velocity was 207 mph, subjecting the module to a braking force of approximately 200 times the force of gravity. Any astronauts still alive at that moment were killed instantly.

When the cabin ripped away from the fuselage, the crew's oxygen supplies were left behind in the payload bay, "except for a few seconds supply in the lines," Kerwin said. But each astronaut's airtight flight helmet also was connected to a PEAP that contained about six minutes of breathing air. Kerwin said because of the design of the activation switch, it was highly unlikely the PEAPs were turned on by impact. But unlike the oxygen system, the PEAPs did not provide pressurized air and if the cabin lost pressure, they would not have allowed the crew to remain conscious.

"It is possible, but not certain, that the crew lost consciousness due to an in-flight loss of crew module pressure," Kerwin wrote. "Data to support this is:


  • The accident happened at 48,000 feet and the crew cabin was at that altitude or higher for almost a minute. At that altitude, without an oxygen supply, loss of cabin pressure would have caused rapid loss of consciousness and it would not have been regained before water impact.
  • PEAP activation could have been an instinctive response to unexpected loss of cabin pressure.
  • If a leak developed in the crew compartment as a result of structural damage during or after breakup (even if the PEAPs had been activated), the breathing air available would not have prevented rapid loss of consciousness.
  • The crew seats and restraint harnesses showed patterns of failure which demonstrates that all the seats were in place and occupied at water impact with all harnesses locked. This would likely be the case had rapid loss of consciousness occurred, but it does not constitute proof."

Despite NASA's best efforts, engineers were never able to determine if cabin pressure was lost. Astronaut Crippen said later he was convinced it did, however, because had the cabin maintained pressure there would have been no need to activate the PEAPs. He said in his view, the astronauts made a "desperate" attempt to survive by activating the PEAPs when pressure was suddenly lost.

Of the four PEAPs recovered, the one that belonged to Scobee had not been activated. Of the other three, one was identified as Smith's and because of the location of the activation switch on the back of his seat, Truly said he believed Resnik or Onizuka turned the pilot's emergency air supply on in a heroic bid to save his life. The exact sequence of events will never be known.