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NASA officials said Thursday that a TV documentary diving crew discovered a large section of the destroyed space shuttle Challenger partially buried on the Atlantic seafloor off the east coast of Florida, nearly 40 years after the explosion killed seven explorers.
Millions of people worldwide watched seven astronauts — including the schoolteacher bound for space — lose their lives aboard the space shuttle after a major malfunction caused by ice from unexpected cold temperatures broke apart the shuttle 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986.
As documentarians scoured the bottom of the ocean searching for World War II-era aircraft wreckage, they came across one of the biggest pieces of Challenger found in the decades since the accident, Michael Ciannilli, a NASA manager who saw the underwater video footage from the TV crew, told The Associated Press.
“My heart skipped a beat, I must say, and it brought me right back to 1986 … and what we all went through as a nation,” Ciannilli said.
Ciannilli said the shuttle piece was more than 15 feet by 15 feet, but was likely longer because of the portion covered by sand. And because of the square thermal tiles on the piece, the NASA official believes it was part of the shuttle’s belly.
Video footage provided “pretty clear and convincing evidence,” said Ciannilli.
The latest Challenger remnants were found almost two decades after two fragments from the left wing drifted to the shores in 1996, according to The Associated Press. About 47% of the Challenger, including two solid-fuel boosters and an external fuel tank, has been recovered since the accident.
The last Challenger mission was commanded by Francis R. “Dick” Scobee and piloted by Michael J. Smith with crew members mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik, payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis, and teacher S. Christa McAuliffe. The launch was scheduled as the agency’s 25th shuttle mission.
“While it has been nearly 37 years since seven daring and brave explorers lost their lives aboard Challenger, this tragedy will forever be seared in the collective memory of our country. For millions around the globe, myself included, Jan. 28, 1986, still feels like yesterday,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “This discovery gives us an opportunity to pause once again, to uplift the legacies of the seven pioneers we lost, and to reflect on how this tragedy changed us. At NASA, the core value of safety is – and must forever remain – our top priority, especially as our missions explore more of the cosmos than ever before.”
NASA created an Office of Safety and Mission Assurance following the Challenger accident and the Columbia accident, which killed all seven astronauts aboard when the shuttle broke up on reentry in February 2003 over the western United States.
The safety team has since developed new risk assessment procedures while addressing safety concerns.
According to NASA, the agency also created the Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program to share these lessons within the agency and with other government, public, commercial, and international audiences.
Although NASA officials did not come upon the shuttle artifacts, the remnants still belong to the U.S. government.
The space agency said it’s currently exploring what actions it may take with the artifact to “properly honor the legacy of Challenger’s fallen astronauts and the families who loved them.”
“Challenger and her crew live on in the hearts and memories of both NASA and the nation,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Janet Petro. “Today, as we turn our sights again toward the Moon and Mars, we see that the same love of exploration that drove the Challenger crew is still inspiring the astronauts of today’s Artemis Generation, calling them to build on the legacy of knowledge and discovery for the benefit of all humanity.”