Recovery of the heroes was a long, difficult ordeal for all involved.
The bulkhead that secured the internal air pressure of the crew decks, separate from the airlock to the cargo bay, faced the divers as a dangerous skew of wreckage that had to be removed before they could reach what remained of the bodies inside.
First to be retrieved from the watery tomb were the remains of Judy Resnik. The divers worked slowly but steadily. More and more parts of bodies went to the surface. Then, from the middeck, the remains of First-Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe were carried slowly to the surface vessel. For the moment, that was all the divers could do.
The cabin wreckage was so twisted and tangled, sharp edges jutting everywhere like knife points, that the divers demanded the wreckage itself be hauled to the surface and the operation continued on deck.
The crew, the NASA teams and the astronauts overseeing the operation stood silently on the USS Preserver recovery ship as a crane lifted the wreckage from the sea. Every step possible to render respect and honor to the human remains was taken.
The salvage operations proceeded normally until the steel cables on the ocean bottom tugged at another section of Challenger’s middeck. At first the weight and mass seemed too great for the hoisting system. Slowly, painfully, the cables pulled the unseen wreckage from the bottom. Then the cables drew the load to the surface. Divers in the water, and everyone on deck, froze where they were.
A blue astronaut jumpsuit bobbed to the surface, turned slowly and then disappeared again within the sea.
What seemed liked minutes passed, in reality only seconds of time. Divers and sailors stood stunned as they realized what had happened. They had found — and just as quickly lost — astronaut Gregory Jarvis. Immediately the divers went deep again, beginning a frantic search for the last astronaut of Challenger, a frustrating search that would not end for another five weeks.
Reuniting the heroes
In the days following, armed forces pathologists made positive identifications of six astronauts from Challenger. The underwater search continued for the body of Gregory Jarvis.
The frustrations of failure day after day began to tell on everyone involved. No one wanted to declare “missing” someone so close to his own group, when they knew the body had every chance of being nearby.
Veteran shuttle pilots Robert Crippen and Bob Overmyer had been put in charge of the recovery of their fellow astronauts, and they would brook no interference from anyone, no matter how high they might be in the NASA hierarchy. Or from any other source. Crippen and Overmyer had decided that when the remains were turned over to the families, there would be seven coffins beneath the American flags. There would not be six. So desperate was Crippen to bring Jarvis home with the rest of his crew that he used his own credit card to hire a local scallop boat to drag its nets across the ocean bottom. Crippen’s move was a last-ditch effort in a search all but abandoned by the exhausted recovery forces.
On April 15, when the recovery teams were planning to cease the search they had carried out for months, divers were making what was scheduled to be their last attempts to gather wreckage from the ocean floor. Two hundred yards from where they had lost the blue suit, they swam within view of the lost astronaut.
The seventh crew member of Challenger was brought carefully to the surface. Ashore, finally, the Challenger Seven were reunited.
NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree has covered America’s space effort from Cape Canaveral for more than 40 years. This is an updated version of a series that was first published on MSNBC.com in January 1997.