A TV documentary team searching for a downed World War II aircraft found one of the largest pieces of NASA's Challenger on the ocean floor.
A segment of Challenger was found far northwest of the Bermuda Triangle, off Florida's Space Coast. In addition to its modern construction and the presence of 20-centimetre square thermal protection (heat shield) tiles, the artifact, which remains where it was found by crews filming the new History Channel show "The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters," was positively identified by NASA.
"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," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement issued on the 11th of November. "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."
The Challenger Tragedy Revisited
The crew of the US space shuttle Challenger in November 1985. Front row from left are astronauts Mike Smith, Dick Scobee and Ron McNair. Back row from left: Ellison Onizuka, school teacher Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis and Judith Resnik. (NASA/AFP via Getty Images)
One of the two solid rocket boosters of the space shuttle Challenger failed 73 seconds into its 10th launch. The malfunction killed NASA's STS-51L crew, including commander Francis "Dick" Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik, payload specialist Greg Jarvis, and Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe.
In the wake of the tragedy, the US Navy and US Coast Guard launched their largest search and salvage operation ever. 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 square kilometres of the ocean floor in depths ranging from 3 to over 365 meters.
After seven months, 167 pieces of the shuttle, weighing a total of 118 tons, were recovered. The debris represented 47% of the orbiter Challenger, 33% of the external tank, 50% of the two solid rocket boosters and between 40% and 95% 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.
The Surprising Find
Divers found a 20-foot segment of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger off the coast of Florida.(AP: The History Channel)
The History Channel's find is the first major discovery of wreckage from the STS-51L disaster in more than 25 years.
"In reviewing the footage that the team provided, we can see a section roughly 15 by 15 feet [4.5 by 4.5 m]. However, we did note that the item does extend deeper into the sand, so the true size is hard to determine at this point. But I am rather confident that it is one of the largest pieces ever found of Challenger," Mike Cianelli, program manager of NASA's Apollo, Challenger and Columbia Lessons Learned Program), said in a video statement released by NASA.
A piece of Challenger was not the goal of the History Channel film crew. In March 2022, the team conducted several scout dives off the coast of Florida to investigate several suspected wreck sites. One of those targets was located outside of the Bermuda Triangle, offshore of Cape Canaveral. Divers initially searched for a PBM Martin Mariner rescue plane that had disappeared without a trace on Dec. 5, 1945, while searching for five Navy torpedo bombers on a mission code-named Flight 19 that had also disappeared earlier that day.
A modern-looking aviation structure was found instead of World War II-era plane debris. After consulting with an outside expert and completing a second dive in May 2022, the TV film crew presented the evidence to former NASA astronaut Bruce Melnick, who suspected it was a piece of the Challenger. Based on that information, the series' producers brought the find to the attention of NASA and in August 2022, Ciannilli confirmed it was a significant remnant of the fallen shuttle.
"The significance of this large section of Challenger's structure was readily apparent," underwater explorer Mike Barnette, who led the History Channel team that made the discovery, said in a statement released(opens in new tab) by A+E Networks. "We recognised the necessity of bringing this find to the immediate attention of NASA. The site, outside of the Bermuda Triangle off the Florida coast, marks the loss of seven brave astronauts — fellow explorers."
"One of the very first things that we did is, we notified all the families of the space shuttle Challenger so they are aware of this," said Ciannilli.
All of 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 honour 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 and 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."
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