In search of a sunken World War II-era aircraft, a TV documentary crew plunged into the waters off the coast of Florida. Instead, the divers came across a large, flat metal object with square tiles indicative of a spacecraft, partially covered by sand on the seafloor.
The team, which had been filming for the History Channel, soon realized their discovery is one of the largest recovered pieces of NASA’s Challenger Space Shuttle.
“Looking at the images that have been released, it's obviously a piece of the orbiter,” Jennifer Levasseur, a curator at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, tells NPR’s Elissa Nadworny. “If you go and visit any of the space shuttles, you'll notice that the tiles that protect the vehicle for reentry—those black tiles on the bottom—have a very obvious pattern, just like tiles on a floor.”
The crew contacted NASA, which confirmed the find in a statement last week.
Challenger’s last launch occurred on Jan. 28, 1986, as part of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. This mission was supposed to send the first American civilian into space: Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher from Concord, New Hampshire. Classrooms across the nation tuned in to watch the momentous take-off live, but 73 seconds after launch, the shuttle exploded, and all seven crew members were killed.
Later investigations showed a cold front, which had come overnight before the launch, brought frigid temperatures that “affected the integrity of O-ring seals in the solid rocket booster segment joints,” per NASA. Despite concerns raised from some employees, managers had cleared the craft for liftoff.
“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,” Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, says in the statement. “For millions around the globe, myself included, Jan. 28, 1986 still feels like yesterday.”
The day of the accident, recovery operations began to collect the pieces of the spacecraft and the crew’s remains. At the time, this was the largest search and salvage effort conducted by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. After inspecting more than 486 square nautical miles over seven months, they recovered 167 pieces of the shuttle, representing 47 percent of the orbiter Challenger and parts of its external tank, rocket boosters and payloads, writes Space.com’s Robert Z. Pearlman.
Additional pieces of the shuttle have since washed up on shore, but the documentary crew’s find is the first in more than 25 years, per History.com.
“I remember the day. I remember where I was,” Mike Barnette, a marine biologist from St. Petersburg, Florida, who led the team that found the shuttle piece, tells the New York Times’ Eduardo Medina. “The tragedy of that and remembering watching it as a kid—it’s a mix of emotions to literally, literally, touch history.”
Video taken by the documentary team shows a roughly 15- by 15-foot section, likely from the shuttle’s underside. But the object’s true size is hard to determine, because it’s obscured by sand, Mike Cianelli, program manager of NASA’s Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program, says in a statement, per Space.com. “But I am rather confident that it is one of the largest pieces ever found of Challenger,” he adds.
For now, the spacecraft section remains on the ocean floor, and NASA is considering its next steps to honor the Challenger astronauts, per the space agency.
“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,” Nelson says in the statement.