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Did the astronauts survive the Challenger explosion long enough to realize their plight?

March 31, 1995

Dear Cecil:

What happened to the astronauts after the Challenger explosion? Everyone assumes they were blown to pieces, but about six months after the accident I saw an article saying the emergency oxygen systems for the astronauts had been manually activated, meaning some or all of them had survived the explosion. I also remember the tanks had 3-5 minutes of usage, meaning they were breathing for at least as long as it took to fall. I recall something about government interference with the autopsy results and (this is the X-Files-type detail) warnings to fishermen to stay away from some mysterious green vials that might be floating in the wreckage. Is there more to the story?

Cecil replies:

More facts? No. More weirdness? You bet. Recently what purports to be a radio transcript of the Challenger crew's last minutes has been showing up on computer bulletin boards. Here are some of the more melodramatic lines, with M or F indicating the sex of the speaker:

M: What happened? What happened? Oh God, no — no!
M: I told them, I told them... Dammit! Resnik don't ...
F: Don't let me die like this. Not now. Not here ...
F: I'm ... passing ... out.
M: If you ever wanted (unintelligible) me a miracle (unintelligible). (Screams.)
M: Can't breathe ...
M: God. The water ... we're dead! (Screams.)
F: Goodbye (sobs) ... I love you, I love you ...
M: Our Father (unintelligible) hallowed be thy name (unintelligible) ...

This is said to have originated in the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News. NASA says it's a hoax, but the agency's credibility in this regard is about zero. After insisting for months that the astronauts never knew what hit them, NASA conceded that they not only survived the explosion but tried to save themselves and may even have been alive when the cabin smashed into the sea at 200 MPH. A 1988 expose by the Miami Herald also revealed that NASA preempted local officials' efforts to do an autopsy, no doubt to avoid having gory pictures (or at least embarrassing quotes) splashed in the newspapers at a time when the agency's prestige was already in the toilet. But the "green vial" stuff seems to be the product of an overactive imagination. Boaters were merely warned to avoid debris lest they mess up evidence or be messed up themselves by fuel or other dangerous chemicals.

Contrary to common belief, the Challenger did not explode into a million pieces in midair. What we all saw on TV was the external tank breaking open and its contents erupting in a fireball that enveloped the shuttle. Pilot Michael Smith said "uh-oh!" and a fraction of a second later the shuttle broke into several large pieces. "Separate sections that can be identified on film include the main engine/tail section with the engines still burning, one wing of the orbiter, and the forward fuselage [including sealed crew cabin] trailing a mass of umbilical lines pulled loose from the payload bay," the official report on the disaster said.

"The forces on the orbiter at breakup were probably too low to cause death or serious injury," NASA medical honcho Joseph Kerwin wrote in a separate report. "The crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following orbiter breakup." Some of the astronauts managed to get their emergency air packs switched on; of the four units later recovered, three had been manually activated. The fact that the fourth was not may indicate it was only a short time before everybody blacked out, but nobody knows for sure.

If the cabin depressurized immediately, the crew would have survived 6 to 15 seconds; if not, they might have lived two and a half minutes as their ruined vessel arced through the upper atmosphere, reaching a height of 65,000 feet before falling to earth. If the astronauts were still alive when they struck the water they weren't afterward. The impact pulverized both cabin and crew, and that plus long immersion in salt water made it impossible to tell what really happened.  Poignant, eh?  Millions of eyes and billions of dollars in technology were trained on them, yet nobody was watching when they died.

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