The Space Shuttle Challenger clears the launch pad on January 28, 1986. Seventy-three seconds after launch, it exploded, killing all seven crew members.
NASA
November 11, 2022 2:50 PM EST

It was more than 36 years ago that NASA suffered one of its greatest tragedies, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on a cold January morning in 1986. Yesterday, NASA reported that a piece of debris from Challenger was found off the coast of Florida by a team of divers who were filming a documentary on the loss of World War II era aircraft in the same area.

“My heart skipped a beat,” Michael Cianilli, a NASA manager who viewed the video footage and confirmed the authenticity of the find, told the AP. “Of course the emotions come right back.”

The remnant measures about 4.5 m by 4.5 m (15 ft. by 15 ft.) and is covered in square thermal tiling, indicating that it came from the belly of the spacecraft. To date, about 118 tons of debris, or 47% of the entire vehicle, have been recovered, and are buried in abandoned missile silos at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The new piece of debris is the first one discovered since 1996, ten years after the accident occurred. As yet, the find has not been recovered, but NASA treats such artifacts with seriousness and solemnity. The expectation is that dive crews will lift it off the ocean floor and inter it with the rest of the lost spacecraft—part of a tribute to the seven lost astronauts who perished on that long-ago morning.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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