U.S. officials on Thursday confirmed that a 20-foot segment of the space shuttle Challenger was discovered earlier this year off the Florida coast by divers who were filming a television documentary about the search for missing World War II-era aircraft near the Bermuda Triangle.
It was the first major discovery of wreckage from the doomed 1986 shuttle launch in more than 25 years.
“NASA leaders recently viewed footage of an underwater dive off the East coast of Florida, and they confirm it depicts an artifact from the space shuttle Challenger,” the space agency announced.
In early March, a dive team working on the History Channel series “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters” was looking for the suspected wreck site of a Navy rescue plane that disappeared without a trace on Dec. 5, 1945, off the coast of Cape Canaveral.
But instead of World War II-era plane debris, the team discovered a modern-looking aviation structure.
“Divers noticed a large humanmade object covered partially by sand on the seafloor,” NASA said. “The proximity to the Florida Space Coast, along with the item’s modern construction and presence of 8-inch square tiles, led the documentary team to contact NASA.”
“We recognized the necessity of bringing this find to the immediate attention of NASA,” Mike Barnette, a marine biologist who led the five-member team that made the discovery, said in a press release.
After consulting with an outside expert and completing two additional dives in May and August, the team was able to confirm with NASA that the wreckage was from the Challenger.
"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," 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."
On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, with seven people on board: Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Gregory B. Jarvis and S. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who had been selected to be part of the crew.
An investigation later concluded that unexpectedly cold temperatures the night before the launch had damaged seals in the shuttle’s solid rocket booster segment joints.
NASA said it is still trying to determine what to do with the discovered piece to “properly honor the legacy of Challenger’s fallen astronauts.” By law, all space shuttle artifacts are the property of the U.S. government.
The space agency also stressed that while the discovery of the debris was part of a TV series about the Bermuda Triangle, the artifact was found in waters well northwest of the area where a number of aircraft and ships are believed to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances.