U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson says he was thinking of the Challenger astronauts' families, not about any cover-up concerning the shuttle explosion, when he intervened in a dispute over the astronauts' remains.
"It's the last thing in the wake of an American tragedy (that) there should be a bureaucratic turf fight over who's going to possess the remains of the seven dead astronauts," Nelson said Monday. "That simply was not right in the context of the national tragedy. We were all suffering, and it was not right for the families of the seven astronauts."If I had to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same way," he said.
A story published Sunday in The Miami Herald's Tropic magazine said Nelson, a Florida Democrat who chairs the House Space Science Subcommittee, acted at NASA's behest in calling Brevard County Medical Examiner Laudie McHenry and telling him to drop his office's contention that the autopsies should be performed by Brevard authorities.
The article implied Nelson's actions were part of an alleged NASA cover-up aimed at preventing the public from knowing that the astronauts likely were alive until the Challenger slammed into the ocean on Jan. 28, 1986.
Nelson denied the story's report that George Abbey, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Astronaut Office, called him to ask him to intervene in the autopsy dispute. Nelson said he called Abbey in March 1986 to tell him he thought the dispute was inappropriate and that he would call the Brevard medical examiner.
In Houston on Monday, the wives of Challenger astronauts Mike Smith and Ellison Onizuka said they weren't surprised to read speculation that crew members may have been alive during the 21/2-minute free fall into the Atlantic Ocean, but that the Tropic article was distressing.
"I think I always felt that Mike was alive because his PEAP (personal emergency air pack) was found still attached to his seat . . . breathed down three-fourths of the way, which was the same amount of time that it would've taken to impact," Jane Smith said at a news conference.
Added Lorna Onizuka: "I don't know if anything was covered up; I hope not."