Divers find Space Shuttle segment in the Atlantic over 30 years after the Challenger disaster

Almost 37 years after one of NASA's worst space disasters, divers find a 15-foot Space Shuttle fragment on the ocean floor.
Chris Young
The divers looking at the Challenger fragment.
The divers looking at the Challenger fragment.

The History Channel 

A large section of NASA's Challenger Space Shuttle, which exploded shortly after launch in one of the space agency's worst disasters, was found on the ocean floor in the Atlantic more than 30 years later, according to a NASA press release.

Divers made the new discovery while filming a TV documentary for the History channel. It is one of the biggest known intact pieces of the Space Shuttle and the first remnant to have been discovered since two pieces of the spacecraft's left wing washed ashore in 1996. NASA confirmed the authenticity of the divers' discovery on Thursday, November 10.

Diver discovery reminds the world of NASA's Challenger tragedy

The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986 was one of the reasons U.S. human spaceflight ground to a halt for almost a decade before SpaceX and NASA's Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The Challenger Space Shuttle suffered a catastrophic malfunction 73 seconds after liftoff. It goes down in history as one of NASA's biggest tragedies, as it killed all seven crew members onboard, including a schoolteacher.

An investigation following the disaster determined that NASA had been warned about a potentially catastrophic issue regarding the Challenger Space Shuttle but proceeded with the launch anyway. The news leads to a widespread outcry and a temporary suspension of the Space Shuttle program.

Though Challenger wasn't the last Space Shuttle mission, it arguably set the wheels in motion for the retirement of the program in 2011 and the following nine years of reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets until SpaceX first flew humans to the ISS in 2020.

The team of divers who found the Challenger remnant had set out to look for fragments of old WWII aircraft lost at sea for a History channel documentary on the Bermuda Triangle. One of their search sites was just north of the Bermuda Triangle near Cape Canaveral. The documentary will air on the History channel on November 22.

"The significance of this large section of Challenger's structure was readily apparent," said Mike Barnette, lead diver of the team that made the discovery. "We recognized the necessity of bringing this find to the immediate attention of NASA. The site, which is outside of the Bermuda Triangle off the Florida coast, marks the loss of seven brave astronauts — fellow explorers — and the Challenger disaster was a tragic setback for America's space program. But from this horrific event, important lessons were learned that have ultimately led to remarkable advances in space exploration."

Divers find Space Shuttle segment in the Atlantic over 30 years after the Challenger disaster
Shuttle Challenger Artifact.

NASA chief: "This tragedy changed us"

The divers initially set out on their expedition in March this year, and they confirmed the discovery of what they believed to be part of the Space Shuttle Challenger in May off the coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral. NASA later corroborated the discovery.

"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, January 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."

The Challenger shard measures more than 15 feet by 15 feet (4.5 meters by 4.5 meters), and its full size is not yet known as its partly covered in sand on the ocean floor. Square thermal tiles on the fragment suggest it is likely part of the shuttle's underbelly.

For now, the Space Shuttle fragment remains on the ocean floor, and NASA is determining its next step. To date, approximately 118 tons of Challenger debris has been recovered since the disaster, constituting roughly 47 percent of the entire rocket. That includes parts of the two solid-fuel boosters and the external fuel tank. Most of these pieces are stored in abandoned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. They serve as a reminder of one of NASA's and one of the world's worst space disasters to date.

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