rest in peace

Film crew discovers wreckage of tragic spaceflight off the coast of Florida

The History Channel stumbled across some actual history.

Divers filming a History Channel documentary about the Bermuda Triangle have found a piece of wreckage from the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded during its liftoff in 1986.

In a video clip shared by the History Channel, two divers examine a large, flat section of aircraft wreckage, partially buried in the sand. What’s exposed is covered with layers of 8-inch square tiles and at least a few rivets. The uppermost tiles have been eroded and pitted by their time in the ocean.

“Definitely an aircraft,” one diver remarks, looking up from the debris toward the camera. “I think we need to talk to NASA.”

Divers examine space shuttle wreckage while tropical fish look on.History Channel

What’s New — NASA officials confirmed that the wreckage was once part of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Shortly after Challenger’s liftoff on January 28, 1986, two rubber O-ring seals in one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters failed. The rocket exploded, destroying the shuttle and killing all seven astronauts aboard: commander Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, pilot Michael J. Smith, mission specialist Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist Judith A. Resnik, payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis, and teacher S. Christa McAuliffe.

The shuttle debris was a far cry from the World War II aircraft wreckage the documentary crew was searching for, and the site was well outside what’s usually considered part of the Bermuda Triangle: a broad swath of the western Atlantic Ocean which became a pop-culture sensation in the mid-20th century thanks to sensational stories about mysterious disappearances of ships, aircraft, and people.

Many of those stories turned out to be exaggerated, and centuries of statistics on maritime mishaps reveal that there’s no real anomaly in the Bermuda Triangle – or at least no more of one than you’d expect from a patch of ocean heavily trafficked by both ships and hurricanes.

But tell that to the History Channel.

What was once a piece of a cutting-edge spacecraft is now part of the underwater landscape.History Channel

They shared footage of the debris on their social media accounts accompanied by a claim of “the first discovery of wreckage from the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger in more than 25 years.” In 2007, two large sections of control surfaces — either from the rudder, wing, or body flaps — washed ashore in Florida, where beach-goers found them lying in the shallows, covered in barnacles. Notably, as you may have seen from mental calculations, this is 15 years ago.

What’s Next – NASA officials identified the 2007 wreckage based on the serial numbers on their thermal protection tiles, then added them to the collection of Challenger debris interred in decommissioned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It’s not yet clear what NASA will do with the latest piece of wreckage. In a press release the agency says it “currently is considering what additional actions it may take regarding the artifact that will properly honor the legacy of Challenger’s fallen astronauts and the families who loved them.”

Options could include leaving the debris on the seafloor where it has rested since 1986, adding it to the grim collection buried in Cape Canaveral’s silos, or including it in a memorial or exhibit like the one in Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Center, where a section of Challenger’s fuselage is now displayed.

NASA doesn’t need the debris to help investigate the shuttle explosion — by now, the agency and everyone else understand exactly what went wrong, from rubber O-rings stiffening in the bitter cold the night before launch to an institutional culture that refused to heed engineers’ warnings.

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