NASA officials sought help from Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to block a state-required autopsy on remains of the Challenger astronauts in a bid to limit information about the fate of the crew, The Miami Herald reported Saturday.
A magazine story in Sunday editions said a top-level NASA official contacted Nelson, whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, seeking his help in keeping the Brevard County medical examiner from participating in an autopsy.Under Florida law, the local medical examiner must hold an autopsy for any deaths in his or her jurisdiction, the story said.
The doctor eventually dropped his request to enforce the state law, and death certificates for the seven astronauts were signed by a NASA official in Houston.
Free-lance writer Dennis Powell, in an article for Tropic magazine, accuses NASA of covering up aspects of the search for astronaut remains.
For example, the article reports that NASA, to avoid curious reporters, ordered remains of three astronauts placed in plastic garbage bags for a late-night trip in a pickup truck from Port Canaveral, where the remains were taken off a ship, to a morgue at Patrick Air Force Base.
The seven Challenger astronauts perished Jan. 28, 1986, when one of two solid-fuel boosters developed a fiery leak, triggering a rupture in the shuttle's huge external fuel tank and the destruction of the manned orbiter.
The shuttle crew compartment broke free and plunged nearly 10 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The article suggests the astronauts survived the fiery blast but died when their crew compartment slammed into the water.
Dr. Laudie McHenry, Brevard County chief medical examiner, and Dr. Ronald Reeves, an associate, attempted on several occasions to participate in an autopsy, but they were repeatedly rebuffed, the article said.
The call from Nelson persuaded McHenry to drop his request for a role in the autopsy process.
Nelson, a member of a shuttle mission aboard Columbia that ended 10 days before Challenger's launch, said in the article he agreed to help "to do what I could to ease the conflict. It would have been terrible to see autopsy reports in the newspaper. I got in touch with the medical examiner and explained the problem."