A documentary film crew shooting in the Atlantic Ocean stumbled upon a large piece of wreckage from the ill-fated 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after takeoff killing all those onboard.
The underwater camera crew was searching for remains of Second World War aircraft near the Bermuda Triangle earlier this year when they found a 20-foot segment of the doomed Space Shuttle.
The Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, about 73 seconds after the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. 46,000 feet above the ground, the Shuttle exploded due to an escape of hot gas within a booster rocket, caused by a weakening of the spacecraft’s rubber O-ring.
The explosion killed all seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected to become the first teacher in space. Debris from the explosion rained down onto the Atlantic Ocean.
In a video released by The History Channel, divers are seen with a fan clearing ocean matter from the debris as fish dart around the reddish material. Part of the wreckage remains buried so its total size is unknown.
However, it is believed to be a 20-foot segment made up of eight-inch square tiles that are designed to withstand extreme temperatures during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere.
“I can certainly say with confidence, it’s one of the largest we’ve ever found,” says Mike Ciannilli, a NASA manager. But he adds that he’s unsure which part of the spacecraft the divers found.
Finding the wreckage caused a “rollercoaster ride of emotions”, according to one of the two divers, Mike Barnette. “When we found it, [there were] a lot of mixed emotions,” the marine biologist says. “I’m used to diving on shipwrecks that are decades to centuries old, and not a piece of the space program. This is quite unique.”
“That turned quickly to realizing ‘Yeah, this is an episode that I lived through’. When this happened, I remember exactly where I was, watching this live on TV,” he says.
After the accident, an extensive search operation was carried out to find pieces of the vessel. Ten years later, two pieces emerged on a beach following a storm. One of these has been displayed as a memorial to the lost crew at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The History Channel crew found the wreckage in March while searching for a rescue plane that vanished in December 1945, which was itself looking for torpedo bombers.