Section of wrecked shuttle Challenger found on seabed

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida– Much of the wrecked space shuttle Challenger was found buried in sand at the bottom of the Atlantic more than three decades after the tragedy that killed a school teacher and six others.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center announced the discovery on Thursday.

“Of course the emotions come back, don’t they?” said Michael Ciannilli, a NASA executive who confirmed the authenticity of the remains. Upon seeing the underwater video footage, “I have to say, my heart skipped a beat and it brought me back to 1986… and what we’ve all been through as a nation.”

According to Ciannilli, it is one of the largest pieces of the Challenger to be found in the decades since the accident and the first remnant to be discovered since two fragments of the left wing washed ashore in 1996.

Divers for a TV documentary first spotted the piece in March while searching for wreckage of a World War II plane. NASA confirmed via video a few months ago that the piece was part of the shuttle that broke apart shortly after launch on January 28, 1986. All seven on board were killed, including the first school teacher to fly into space, Christa McAuliffe.

The underwater video provided “pretty clear and compelling evidence,” Ciannilli said.

The piece is over 15 feet by 15 feet (4.5 meters by 4.5 meters); It’s probably bigger because part of it is covered with sand. Because there are square thermal tiles on the piece, it’s believed to have come from the shuttle’s belly, Ciannilli said.

The fragment remains on the sea floor just off the Florida coast near Cape Canaveral while NASA determines the next step. It remains the property of the US government. The families of all seven crew members on the Challenger have been notified.

“We want to make sure that whatever we do, we’re doing the right thing for the crew’s legacy,” said Ciannilli.

Approximately 118 short tons (107 short tons) of Challenger debris has been recovered since the accident. This corresponds to about 47% of the entire vehicle, including parts of the two solid fuel boosters and the external fuel tank.

Most of the recovered debris remains buried in abandoned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The exception is a left shuttle panel on display in Kennedy Space Center’s visitor complex next to the charred cockpit window frame of the shuttle Columbia, which broke apart on reentry in 2003 over Texas, killing seven astronauts.

Far less was recovered from Columbia — 42 tons (38 tons), which is 38% of the shuttle. Columbia’s remains are kept in converted offices in Kennedy’s vast hangar.

Launched on an exceptionally cold morning, Challenger was brought down by eroded O-ring seals in the right hand booster. Columbia ended up with a slashed left wing, the result of the foam insulation breaking off the external fuel tank during takeoff. Mismanagement was also accused.

A History Channel documentary detailing the latest Challenger discovery will air on November 22nd.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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