Search for WWII Plane Turns Up Chunk of Challenger Shuttle

20-foot remnant found by documentary crew off coast of Florida
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 11, 2022 7:56 AM CST

It's been more than 35 years since the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all seven crew members—but a documentary team has just unearthed a big chunk of debris from the doomed spacecraft. In a Thursday release, NASA confirmed the discovery, made in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida by a History Channel film crew that was on the hunt for an aircraft from World War II. "Divers noticed a large humanmade object covered partially by sand on the seafloor," the release notes, adding that "the proximity to the Florida Space Coast," along with other visual clues, "led the documentary team to contact NASA."

CNN reports it's been more than 25 years since any debris from the Challenger has been found. The outlet notes that the Challenger chunk was first spotted in March by a team led by Mike Barnette, but poor visibility forced them to abandon further examination. They went back in May and were able to capture clearer imagery, and retired astronaut Bruce Melnick, a friend of Barnette's, told his pal the object could very well be from the Challenger. The giveaway: the presence of unmistakable 8-inch square silicon tiles, which coated the underside of the space shuttle to protect it from heat.

NASA received the footage in August, and a confirmation was made from there on this "remarkable discovery," per CBS Boston. The Challenger's demise 73 seconds after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986, was seen all across the nation, including in high school classrooms, and Barnette was one of those students watching in horror when it happened. "I can almost smell the smells of that day," he tells CNN. "It was just so burned into my brain." All artifacts from space shuttles are considered the property of the US government, and NASA is now mulling what to do with this one in a way that's sensitive to the feelings of the deceased astronauts' families. CBS News notes that previous pieces of wreckage and personal items of the astronauts have ended up at the Kennedy Space Center and the International Space Station. (More Challenger stories.)

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