Claim: A secret tape recorded aboard the doomed space shuttle Challenger captured the final panic-stricken moments of the crew.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1994]
The tape is said to begin with a startled crewman screaming,"What happened? What happened? Oh God - No!" Screams and curses are heard - several crewmen begin to weep - and then others bid their families farewell.
Two minutes forty-five seconds later the tape ends. That's when the shuttles crew compartment, which remained intact after the vessel exploded over the Atlantic, hit the ocean at over 2,000 miles per hour, instantly killing the crew.
"Cover up? Of course there was a coverup," declared Robert Hotz, a member of the Presidential commission that investigated the disaster. "NASA can't face the fact that they put these astronauts in a situation where they didn't have adequate equipment to survive. NASA doesn't give a damn about anything but covering it's ass," he said.
The official account released by NASA ends with shuttle pilot Michael Smith saying,
"All shuttle astronauts carry personal recorders and the tape in question apparently came from Christa's (McAuliffe), which was recovered after the shuttle disaster," said Hotz. Jarvis was sitting beside her, and when he figured out what was happening he said, "Give me your hand."
"NASA insists there's nothing like that on tape but they're talking about the mission tape, not Christa's. So they're not lying, but they're not telling the truth, either."
A journalist with close ties to NASA was even more emphatic, "There are persistent rumors, dating back to the disaster, that this tape is absolutely bone-chilling."
The following transcript begins two seconds after NASA's official version ends, with pilot Michael Smith saying,
T+1:15 (M) What happened? What happened? Oh God, no - no!
T+1:17 (F) Oh dear God.
T+1:18 (M) Turn on your air pack! Turn on your air...
T+1:20 (M) Can't breathe... choking...
T+1:21 (M) Lift up your visor!
T+1:22 (M/F) (Screams.) It's hot. (Sobs.) I can't. Don't tell me... God! Do it...now...
T+1:24 (M) I told them... I told them... Dammit! Resnik don't...
T+1:27 (M) Take it easy! Move (unintelligible)...
T+1:28 (F) Don't let me die like this. Not now. Not here...
T+1:31 (M) Your arm... no... I (extended garble, static)
T+1:36 (F) I'm... passing... out...
T+1:37 (M) We're not dead yet.
T+1:40 (M) If you ever wanted (unintelligible) me a miracle... (unintelligible)... (screams)
T+1:41 (M) She's... she's... (garble) ... damn!
T+1:50 (M) Can't breathe...
T+1:51 (M/F) (screams) Jesus Christ! No!
T+1:54 (M) She's out.
T+1:55 (M) Lucky... (unintelligible).
T+1:56 (M) God. The water... we're dead! (screams)
T+2:00 (F) Goodbye (sobs)... I love you, I love you...
T+2:03 (M) Loosen up... loosen up...
T+2:07 (M) It'll just be like a ditch landing...
T+2:09 (M) That's right, think positive.
T+2:11 (M) Ditch procedure...
T+2:14 (M) No way!
T+2:17 (M) Give me your hand...
T+2:19 (M) You awake in there? I... I...
T+2:29 (M) Our Father... (unintelligible)...
T+2:42 (M) ...hallowed be Thy name... (unintelligible).
T+2:57 (M) You...over there?
T+2:58 (M) The Lord is my shepherd, I shall... not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures... though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil... I will dwell in the house...
T+3:15 to end. None. Static, silence.
Rest in Peace
NASA later conceded it was likely that at least three of the crew members aboard remained conscious after the explosion, and perhaps even throughout the few minutes it took for
Such an environment breeds its own rumors, and Miami Herald reporter Dennis E. Powell wrote that the crew were likely all alive and conscious until the shuttle's crew compartment plunged into the Atlantic Ocean:
When the shuttle broke apart, the crew compartment did not lose pressure, at least not at once. There was an uncomfortable jolt — "A pretty good kick in the pants" is the way one investigator describes it — but it was not so severe as to cause injury. This probably accounted for the "uh oh" that was the last word heard on the flight deck tape recorder that would be recovered from the ocean floor two months later. As they were feeling the jolt, the four astronauts on the flight deck saw a bright flash and a cloud of steam. The lights went out. The intercom went dead. After a few breaths, the seven astronauts stopped getting oxygen into their helmets.However, the "transcript" quoted above of the Challenger crew's final moments was not taken from a "secret tape" leaked from NASA; it originated with an article published in a
Someone, apparently astronaut Ronald McNair, leaned forward and turned on the personal emergency air pack of shuttle pilot Michael Smith. The PEAP of Commander Francis Scobee was in a place where it was difficult to reach. It was not activated. Even so, if the crew compartment did not rapidly lose air pressure, Scobee would only have had to lift his mask to be able to breathe. Two other PEAPs were turned on. The three others were never found.
Though the shuttle had broken to pieces, the crew compartment was intact. It stabilized in a nose-down attitude within 10 to 20 seconds, say the investigators. Even if the compartment was gradually losing pressure, those on the flight deck would certainly have remained conscious long enough to catch a glimpse of the green-brown Atlantic rushing toward them. If it lost its pressurization very slowly or remained intact until it hit the water, they were conscious and cognizant all the way down.
In fact, no clear evidence was ever found that the crew cabin depressurized at all. There was certainly no sudden, catastrophic loss of air of the type that would have knocked the astronauts out within seconds. Such an event would have caused the mid-deck floor to buckle upward; that simply didn't happen.
Not everyone aboard died the exact second the external tank exploded; that much is known. A complete understanding of exactly what happened in that cabin after the explosion remains elusive because the impact of the crash, plus the six weeks the wreckage and bodies spent in the sea, made it impossible to determine precisely when and how everybody aboard died. (Six weeks in sea water would also have ruined any unshielded audio tapes that miraculously survived the explosion and the crash.)
If the cabin depressurized immediately, the crew would have lived about 6 to
Possibly the best clue towards solving the mystery of how long the doomed crew survived lies in what NASA learned from examining the four emergency air packs recovered from
That was the conclusion of
In the report, Dr. Kerwin said: "The cause of death of the Challenger astronauts cannot be positively determined, the forces to which the crew were exposed during the orbiter breakup were probably not sufficient to cause death or serious injury, and the crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following orbiter breakup due to
In other words, they might well have lived for the full spiral down and might even have been fully conscious for all of that hellish descent. But even if so, this fabricated "transcript" does not preserve their final words.
Barbara "shuttlecrock" Mikkelson
Last updated: 28 January 2015
Jones, Alex. "Withheld Shuttle Data: A Debate Over Privacy." The New York Times. 27 January 1987 (p. C1). Okie, Susan. "Astronaut Autopsies Will Be Difficult." The Washington Post. 16 March 1986 (p. A14). Wilford, John Noble. "A Grueling Autopsy for the Challenger." The New York Times. 9 February 1986 (p. D5). The Associated Press. "NASA Says Challenger Crew Survived Briefly After Blast." The San Diego Union-Tribune. 29 July 1986 (p. A8). The Associated Press. "Challenger Crew Made Bid for Life." The Record. 29 July 1986 (p. A1). Weekly World News. "Tape Proves Doomed Shuttle Screamed, Cursed and Prayed." 5 February 1991.