NASA paid $26.6 million to family members of the astronauts who died on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, a newspaper reported Sunday, citing recently released documents.
Documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel through a federal Freedom of Information Act request show that former FBI Director William Webster helped negotiate out-of-court settlements with the families.
NASA obtained money for the settlement through a congressional appropriation in 2004, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said.
The U.S. space agency had never before disclosed the settlement to protect the privacy of the Columbia families, Beutel told The Associated Press on Sunday.
"Everything has been done to help the families as much as can be done," Beutel said. "It's a public event but yet it's very personal to them."
Webster told the Sentinel that the families did not wish to discuss the matter after it was settled.
"The members of the families wanted this to be a private matter," he said. "They were healing, and they were ready to discuss, properly, their rights. ... Everyone felt it had a better chance of coming together without seeing their name in lights."
The released documents did not note how much money each family received, but Jon Clark, husband of Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark, said the figures were on the "low side" of what families were seeking.
He said parents, children and spouses were all compensated and astronauts with doctoral degrees received a bit more than those who held master's degrees.
"It wasn't a lot of money. A few million (dollars) isn't much," he said. "We had to prove our loved ones were worth something."
An investigation found that Columbia was brought down in 2003 because a piece of insulating foam broke off the shuttle during liftoff and caused damage. Searing gases penetrated the shuttle upon re-entry and it disintegrated over Texas. All seven astronauts aboard died.
The Orlando Sentinel also reported that two astronaut families had ordered preflight insurance policies through NASA, but the agency failed to obtain the additional coverage before the accident. All the families threatened to go public before the agency paid the two families the additional insurance, the newspaper said.
Beutel said he was unaware of the details on the insurance policies.