Chapter 5: An eternity of descent
Evidence hints that astronauts were alive during fall
By Jay Barbree
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The water was murky, swirling from surface winds, keeping divers Terry Bailey and Mike McAllister from seeing more than an armís reach in front of them. They had been diving for days, recovering Challengerís debris, and, now, on this dive, they had only six minutes left in their tanks.
They were about 100 feet down, moving across the seafloor, when they almost bumped into what at first appeared to be a tangle of wire and metal. Nothing that unusual, nothing they hadnít seen on many dives before.
Then, they saw it. A spacesuit, full of air, legs floating toward the surface. Thereís someone in it, Terry Bailey thought.
No, thatís not right, he admonished himself. Shuttle astronauts do not wear pressurized spacesuits during powered flight. They wear jumpsuits. They carry along two pressure suits if they should be needed for a repair spacewalk.
He turned to his partner, Mike McAllister. They just looked at each other and thought, ďJackpot.Ē This is what weíve been looking for. The crew cabin.
Low on air, the two divers made a quick inspection, marked the location with a buoy and returned to their boat to report the find.
A cabin intact
Early the next morning, the USS Preserver recovery ship put to sea. The divers began their grim task of recovering the slashed and twisted remains of Challengerís crew cabin and the remains of its seven occupants.
On first inspection, it was obvious that the shuttle Challengerís crew vessel had survived the explosion during ascent. A 2-year-long investigation into how the crew cabin, and possibly its occupants, had survived was begun.
A portion of the side hatch area on the space shuttle Challenger's crew compartment is pulled from the Atlantic in January 1986
But even if the crew cabin had survived intact, wouldnít the violent pitching and yawing of the cabin as it descended toward the ocean created G-forces so strong as to render the astronauts unconscious?
That may have once been believed. But that was before the investigation turned up the key piece of evidence that led to the inescapable conclusion that they were alive: On the trip down, the commander and pilotís reserved oxygen packs had been turned on by astronaut Judy Resnik, seated directly behind them. Furthermore, the pictures, which showed the cabin riding its own velocity in a ballistic arc, did not support an erratic, spinning motion. And even if there were G-forces, commander Dick Scobee was an experienced test pilot, habituated to them.
The evidence led experts to conclude the seven astronauts lived. They worked frantically to save themselves through the plummeting arc that would take them 2 minutes and 45 seconds to smash into the ocean.
That is when they died ó after an eternity of descent.
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