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Challenger space shuttle fragment found 36 years after disaster

NASA has confirmed the discovery of a section of the Challenger space shuttle that exploded shortly after launch in 1986 with the tragic loss of all seven crew members.

The fragment was found during a dive off the Florida coast by a History Channel documentary crew searching for the wreckage of a World War II-era aircraft.

Video taken at the scene shows what appears to be some of Challenger’s 8-inch-square thermal protection tiles lying on the seabed, partially covered by sand. The part is reportedly about 15 square feet and may be from the underside of the spacecraft.

The History Channel shared footage of divers at the site in the Atlantic Ocean:

What they uncover off the coast of Florida, outside of the Triangle, marks the first discovery of wreckage from the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger in more than 25 years. Don’t miss the premiere of The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters on Tuesday, November 22 at 10/9C.

— HISTORY (@HISTORY) November 10, 2022

Responding to the discovery, NASA chief Bill Nelson commented: “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. 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. At NASA, the core value of safety is — and must forever remain — our top priority, especially as our missions explore more of the cosmos than ever before.”

The STS-51L Challenger mission marked the shuttle’s 25th orbital flight. It was commanded by Francis R. “Dick” Scobee and piloted by Michael J. Smith. The other crew members comprised mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis; and teacher S. Christa McAuliffe.

The Challenger shuttle suffered a catastrophic malfunction 73 seconds after leaving the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, causing the vehicle to explode in midair.

Prior to launch, some mission personnel had expressed concerns over the vehicle’s readiness for flight, but NASA decided to proceed. A subsequent investigation into the disaster put the cause down to extremely cold temperatures impacting the integrity of O-ring seals in the solid rocket booster segment joints.

Almost half of the Challenger spacecraft has been recovered over the years, with the last major find comprising two fragments from the vehicle’s left wing, which came ashore in 1996.

The most recent discovery will remain where the divers found it while the space agency considers how to handle it in a way that will “properly honor the legacy of Challenger’s fallen astronauts and the families who loved them.” NASA said.

Starting in 1981, NASA flew a total of 135 space shuttle missions. The last one, using Atlantis, touched down safely in 2011.

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