Wreck diver describes finding part of the Space Shuttle Challenger

The spacecraft fragment "had these orange-red pads all over it which I had never seen before."
Chris Young
The Challenger explosion (left) and divers finding the fragment (right).
The Challenger explosion (left) and divers finding the fragment (right).

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The explosion of NASA's Challenger Space Shuttle only 73 seconds after it launched in 1986 is one of the U.S. space agency's worst-ever disasters, resulting in the loss of life of all seven crew members onboard, including a schoolteacher taking part in a new NASA initiative.

Though Challenger wasn't the last Space Shuttle mission, the disaster was one of the main reasons the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011, leading to nine years of reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets up to the point that SpaceX first flew humans to the International Space Station in 2020.

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More than 30 years after the Challenger disaster, a group of divers searching for fragments of an old WWII aircraft for a documentary for the History Channel stumbled upon a roughly 15 by 15 foot (4.5 by 4.5 meter) piece of the Space Shuttle on the ocean floor in the Atlantic near Cape Canaveral, Florida.

For now, the Space Shuttle fragment — square thermal tiles suggest it is part of Challenger's underbelly — remains on the ocean floor. The divers quickly informed NASA of their discovery after first finding the shard and determining it was a piece of the spacecraft. The U.S. space agency confirmed the authenticity of the discovery, and it is determining what its next steps will be.

An interview with a team who found the fragment

The History Channel documentary started airing on November 22. We spoke with one of the teams who found the fragment, underwater explorer and wreck diver Jimmy Gadomski, shortly after the first episode premiered.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: When you found the Challenger fragment, did you immediately know it was a spacecraft fragment?

Jimmy Gadomski: "When I first saw the segment, I knew it was aircraft material, the first thought that came to mind was we had found the Martin PBM Mariner we had been searching for, but upon further inspection, it was apparent that this was much more modern. Visibility was very poor, maybe 3 feet if that, so it was very hard to tell exactly what I was looking at; it had these orange-red pads all over it, which I had never seen before, so that was my first indication of it being something different. At the time, though, I was not thinking spacecraft because it was so hard to see things on the bottom."

IE: How many times did you dive down to the Space Shuttle segment?

"I did two dives on the Shuttle segment, the first dive was just a recon dive with poor visibility that I did solo with a GoPro, and the second dive was back in May with my teammate Michael Barnette. We had much better visibility for the second dive — about 60 feet — and it was very apparent what we had found."

IE: Were there any particularly challenging aspects to this dive, or was it a relatively shallow, easy dive? 

"Compared to the other dives we accomplish in our series, this was a relatively easy dive, but every dive presents its own challenges and different conditions to work through. The visibility on the first dive was the most challenging part of it, and there were times I could barely see my hand in front of my face. Thankfully, I had a camera and light with me, and that was able to pick up much more than I could actually see on the bottom."

IE: How closely has your team collaborated with NASA since the discovery?

"Since we brought it to their attention, there have been back-and-forth discussions between our team and NASA, as well as some information you will see [in the first episode of the documentary]. We had to keep things quiet due to the sensitivities surrounding the discovery for some time prior to the release, but it is great to finally be able to discuss it now."

IE: Could you tell us about some other interesting wreckage you've discovered in the last few months or years?

"We have connected many stories over the years. [Lead diver] Mike Barnette and I discovered the shipwreck of the Sandra as well while looking for Flight 19, which appeared on an episode of The History Channel's non-fiction strand, 'History's Greatest Mysteries' back in 2021, and we were able to piece together its story by getting cargo samples and solving this mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. There are some other stories we will connect this season and bring closure to as well. A few years ago, I was also able to name the shipwreck of the Pulaski by finding a candle stick with the name SB Pulaski on the inside. This was very significant because the wreck's boilers heated up and exploded, so it is not an intact wreck at all. I still work on that site from time to time, and we have found many artifacts and gold and silver coins at the site. We are always exploring new sites and trying to connect the stories of wrecks, some of which we need more time to go back to and fully identify to this day."

IE: Is there anything exciting you could tease that will be revealed in the History documentary?

"With all the news, I am excited for everyone to see the reveal of how we found the Challenger segment. This is not our only big find this season. Each episode will showcase a major find and will document the process of how the team was able to make these discoveries. We did some extremely deep dives to link these stories together and what I can say is that I am extremely excited for everyone to watch and see firsthand the findings of our work. I don't want to give anything away, but I think everyone will be as thrilled as we were when we made the discoveries! There is never a dull moment, and there are many sites we visit that have never been explored before."