CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.--Searchers have found remains of Challenger's astronauts in the debris of the shuttle's crew compartment 100 feet down on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, NASA announced yesterday.
"Family members of Challenger's crew have been informed," a statement said. "In deference to family wishes, NASA will not make further comments until recovery operations and identifications are complete."
Mark Weinberg, a spokesman for the presidential commission investigating the shuttle explosion, said he could not comment on the significance of the find to the commission's probe.
"I would not want to characterize its importance. That's to be determined. Clearly all pieces of evidence are important," he said.
A search ship using sonar about 25 miles northeast of Cape Canaveral made a possible identification of the compartment late Friday, and divers Saturday positively identified compartment debris and crew remains, the NASA statement said.
Recovering the compartment wreckage and remains could take several days, depending on the weather and sea conditions, NASA said.
Seven crew members died when Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff Jan. 28.
Among those killed was Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher who was flying as NASA's first citizen in space.
The others were commander Richard Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair and Gregory Jarvis.
NASA said that when the remains are recovered they will be taken to a hospital at Patrick Air Force Base, about 25 miles south of Cape Canaveral.
"Assistance in positive identification of crew will be provided by Armed Forces Institute of Pathology personnel," the statement said.
"Local security measures are being taken to assure that recovery operations can take place in a safe and orderly manner," it said.
The right rocket is the chief suspect as the cause of the tragedy and investigators want to retrieve its debris for possible clues. Some officials have said the cause may never be found unless the booster can be examined.
Photographs show a puff of black smoke spewing from the rocket milliseconds after ignition and a spurt of flame pouring from the same area 15 seconds before the explosion.
The smoke and flame appeared near a joint between the bottom two segments of the solid fuel rocket.