A federal appeals court ordered the U.S. space agency on Friday to release a tape recording of the space shuttle Challenger crew's last words before it exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.

The court's 2-1 decision affirmed a U.S. district judge's ruling requiring the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to release the cockpit tape that was recovered from the sea.The shuttle erupted in flames 73 seconds after it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. All seven crew members died.

NASA has published an edited transcript of the cockpit conversation from about two minutes before the launch until the shuttle began its fiery disintegration that was caused by a leaky joint in its rocket boosters.

But the New York Times, citing the freedom of information laws, filed suit asking for a copy of the tape because it may contain more information on background noises from the faulty boosters.

The newspaper said the tape would enable the public to verify NASA's conclusion that the astronauts had no advance warning of a problem. It also questioned the accuracy of the transcript NASA released.

NASA argued that release of the tape would infringe upon the personal privacy of the astronauts' families by subjecting them to replays of the voices of the deceased.

Judge Douglas Ginsburg dissented from the court's decision that NASA must release the tapes without regard to the effect on the families of the deceased astronauts.

"Under clear Supreme Court precedent, NASA need not disclose `information which applies to a particular individual' if its disclosure would `constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,' " he said.