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High Seas Hamper Search for Shuttle Wreckage

April 16, 1986

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Choppy seas hampered divers trying to pinpoint additional pieces of the burned-out joint on Challenger’s right booster Wednesday while an unmanned sub made a video sweep of the ocean bottom where crew cabin debris has been found.

The civilian ship G.W.Pierce brought in more astronaut remains late Tuesday, according to ship-to-shore radio traffic, before returning to the same general area of the Atlantic search site. The space agency has refused to discuss any such findings out of respect for the families of the seven victims.

Search vessels reported 6- to 8-foot seas Wednesday but put down divers and unmanned submersibles on and off throughout the day.

Meanwhile, experts from the space agency and private contractors inspected a two-ton booster piece containing part of the joint that failed during launch.

Workers reported picking up two large pieces of booster debris, and were rigging other booster parts for recovery, but “it’s nothing hot. It’s not what we’re looking for,” said Lt. Cmdr. Deborah Burnette, a Navy spokeswoman.

She said the heavy seas “slowed them down out there but didn’t stop them,” although only photography was being carried out around the crew compartment.

Meanwhile, experts from the space agency and private contractors inspected a two-ton booster piece containing part of the joint that failed during launch.

On hand at Kennedy Space Center for the analysis work was Eugene Covert, a rocket expert, professor of aeronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of the presidential commission investigating the Jan. 28 tragedy.

Covert later flew to Marshall Space Flight Center, Ala., where he briefed reporters on his findings along with three other commission members - Neil Armstrong, Donald Kutyna and Richard Feynman.

The panel members told reporters that inspection of a vital 10-by-2 foot portion of the right booster recovered earlier this week provided confirmation that Challenger’s destruction was caused by failure of the bottom joint.

In Washington, commission spokesman Mark Weinberg said examination of the booster piee was considered so significant that final submission of a report by the panel’s accident analysis team may be delayed beyond the Friday due date. The commission is expected to present its overall report to President Reagan by June 6.

The charred 11-by-20-foot section brought in Tuesday contains a burned out hole about 2 feet square right at the joint where the booster segments are joined. A plume of flame escaped through that joint during liftoff, triggered Challenger’s destruction and killed its crew, investigators believe.

Still missing, and a key objective of the search flotilla, is the segment below the joint. Together, the two pieces may shed more light on what caused the failure and aid in the expected redesign of the boosters.

On Tuesday, radio traffic from the Pierce referred to a “Tom O’Malley,” a code used by search ships that is believed to refer to human remains. After the ship docked, an ambulance backed up to it and took off a box that observers said was similar to those used previously for remains of some of the astronauts.

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