The Challenger explosion.

Challenger piece found on ocean floor in Cape Canaveral

A large section of the destroyed space shuttle Challenger has been found buried in sand at the bottom of the Atlantic, more than three decades after the tragedy that killed a schoolteacher and six others.

One of the largest pieces of NASA’s fallen space shuttle Challenger has been discovered on the ocean floor by a TV documentary team searching for a downed World War II aircraft.

Pieces of the Challenger at the bottom of the ocean.
Pieces of the Challenger at the bottom of the ocean.

The artifact, which today remains where it was found by the crew filming The History Channel’s new series “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters,” was positively identified by NASA based upon the item’s modern construction and presence of 8-inch square thermal protection (heat shield) tiles. The segment of Challenger was found in waters off Florida’s Space Coast, well northwest of the area popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle.

It’s one of the biggest pieces of Challenger found in the decades since the accident, according to Ciannilli, and the first remnant to be discovered since two fragments from the left wing washed ashore in 1996.

”Of course, the emotions come back, right?” said Michael Ciannilli, a NASA manager who confirmed the remnant’s authenticity. When he saw the underwater video footage, “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.”

The piece is more than 15 feet by 15 feet (4.5 meters by 4.5 meters); it’s likely bigger because part of it is covered with sand. Because there are square thermal tiles on the piece, it’s believed to be from the shuttle’s belly, Ciannilli said.

What is the Space Shuttle known as Challenger

Challenger explosion.
Challenger explosion.

Challenger was named after HMS Challenger, a British corvette that was the command ship for the Challenger Expedition, a pioneering global marine research expedition undertaken from 1872 through 1876. The Apollo 17 Lunar Module, which landed on the Moon in 1972, for example, was also named Challenger.

Challenger was a Space Shuttle orbiter operated by NASA, it was the second Space Shuttle orbiter to fly into space after Columbia, and launched on its maiden flight in April 1983.

During its three years of operation, Challenger was flown on ten missions in the Space Shuttle program, spending over 62 days in space and completing almost 1,000 orbits around Earth. Following its maiden flight, Challenger supplanted Columbia as the leader of the Space Shuttle fleet, being the most-flown orbiter during all three years of its operation, while Columbia itself was seldom used during the same time frame. Challenger was used for numerous civilian satellite launches.

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard. The spacecraft disintegrated 46,000 feet (14 km) above the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 11:39 a.m. EST (16:39 UTC). It was the first fatal accident involving an American spacecraft in flight.

The mission, designated STS-51-L, was the tenth flight of the orbiter and the twenty-fifth flight of the Space Shuttle fleet. The crew was scheduled to deploy a communications satellite and study Halley’s Comet while they were in orbit, in addition to taking school teacher Christa McAuliffe into space. The latter resulted in a higher than usual media interest and coverage of the mission; the launch and subsequent disaster were seen live in many schools across the United States.

In 09/02/2020 Netflix produced a documentary about the disaster, knowing as ”Challenger: the Final Flight” developed by Glen Zipper and Steven Leckart, the series revolves around the 1986 accident.

Challenger, the final flight on Netflix.
Challenger, the final flight on Netflix.

What else has been found over the years?

A major search and salvage effort was organized in the wake of the tragedy, the largest ever conducted by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard at that time. The operation involved thousands of people, 16 surface vessels, a nuclear-powered research submarine and several robotic and crewed submersibles systematically inspecting more than 486 square nautical miles (1,666 sq km) of ocean floor in depths ranging from 10 to over 1,200 feet (3 to 365 m).

After seven months, 167 pieces of the shuttle, weighing 118 tons, were recovered. The debris represented 47 percent of the orbiter Challenger, 33 percent of the external tank, 50 percent of the two solid rocket boosters and between 40 and 95 percent of the mission’s three primary payloads (an inertial upper stage, a tracking and data relay satellite and an astronomical tool to observe Halley’s Comet).

After being analyzed to learn what caused the failure, the wreckage was placed into two silos – Complex 31 and 32 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (now Space Force Station) – each 78 feet deep by 12 feet in diameter (24 by 4 m), which had previously supported Minuteman missiles up until 1970. The silos were not considered burial sites or a memorial for Challenger, but rather a storage site, and in the years since, as additional pieces have washed up on shore, they have been added to the archive.

Keeping the memory alive

Keeping their memory alive at the Kennedy Space center.
Keeping their memory alive at the Kennedy Space center.

In 2015, for the first and only time to date, NASA placed a large section of space shuttle Challenger’s fuselage on public display as part of “Forever Remembered,” a permanent memorial to the nation’s fallen shuttle crews at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

All the debris from the fallen space shuttle Challenger remains U.S. government property. NASA is currently considering what additional actions it may take regarding the History Channel’s find that will properly honor the legacy of the fallen astronauts and the families who loved them.

“Currently, at this time we’re reviewing options of how to move forward after this discovery. But I can assure you NASA will put the memory and legacy of the crew in the families foremost in its thoughts and planning as we move forward,” said Ciannilli. “It’s very important to keep the memory of the crew and the mission alive.”

Max Francisco