Filmmakers Find Section of Destroyed Space Shuttle Challenger on Ocean Floor

Filmmakers Find Section of Destroyed Space Shuttle Challenger on Ocean Floor

A TV documentary team looking for a World War II aircraft has found the largest fragments of NASA’s Challenger spacecraft on the ocean floor.

The artifact, which today remains where it was found by the crew filming The History Channel’s new series “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters,” was positively identified by NASA based upon the item’s modern construction and presence of 8-inch (20 centimeters) square thermal protection (heat shield) tiles. The segment of Challenger was found in waters off Florida’s Space Coast, well northwest of the area popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle.

“This discovery gives us an opportunity to pause once again, to uplift the legacies of the seven pioneers we lost and to reflect on how this tragedy changed us,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement issued on Thursday (Nov. 10). “While it has been nearly 37 years since seven daring and brave explorers lost their lives aboard Challenger, this tragedy will forever be seared in the collective memory of our country. For millions around the globe, myself included, Jan. 28, 1986, still feels like yesterday.”

The search for Challenger

The space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its 25th launch after seals in one of the vehicle’s two solid rocket boosters failed. NASA’s STS-51L crew, including commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Judy Resnik, payload specialist Greg Jarvis and Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe were killed in the aftermath of the malfunction.

A major search and rescue effort was organized following the tragedy. It was the largest ever undertaken by the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard. The operation involved thousands of people, 16 surface vessels, a nuclear-powered research submarine and several robotic and crewed submersibles systematically inspecting more than 486 square nautical miles (1,666 square kilometers) of ocean floor in depths ranging from 10 to over 1,200 feet (3 to 365 meters).

After seven months, 167 pieces of the shuttle, weighing a total of 118 tons, were recovered. The debris represented 47% of the orbiter Challenger, 33% of the external tank, 50% of the two solid rocket boosters and between 40% and 95% of the mission’s three primary payloads (an inertial upper stage, a tracking and data relay satellite and an astronomical tool to observe Halley’s Comet).

After being analyzed to learn what caused the failure, the wreckage was placed into two silos–Complex 31 and 32 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (now Space Force Station)–each 78 feet deep by 12 feet in diameter (24 by 4 m), which had previously supported Minuteman missiles up until 1970. The silos were not intended to be a burial site or a memorial to Challenger. They were meant to be a storage location. Over the years, additional pieces have been added to the archive as they have been found on shore.

In 2015, for the first and only time to date, NASA placed a large section of space shuttle Challenger’s fuselage on public display as part of “Forever Remembered,” a permanent memorial to the nation’s fallen shuttle crews at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

Unexpected find

The History Channel’s find is the first major discovery of wreckage from the STS-51L disaster in more than 25 years.

“In reviewing the footage that the team provided, we can see a section roughly 15 by 15 feet [4.5 by 4.5 m]. We did notice that the item extends deeper into the sand so it is difficult to determine its true size. But I am rather confident that it is one of the largest pieces ever found of Challenger,” Mike Cianelli, program manager of NASA’s Apollo, Challenger and Columbia Lessons Learned Program , said in a video statement released by NASA.

The History Channel film crew didn’t set out to find a piece from Challenger. Rather, in March 2022, the team embarked on a series of scout dives to investigate several suspected wreck targets off the coast of Florida, with one of those targets being outside of the Bermuda Triangle, offshore from Cape Canaveral. The divers were initially looking for the wreck of a PBM Martin Mariner rescue plane that disappeared without a trace on Dec. 5, 1945, while searching for five U.S. Navy torpedo bombers on a mission code-named Flight 19 that had also disappeared earlier that day.

The team found a modern-looking structure in the air, instead of World War II-era aircraft debris. After consulting with an outside expert and completing a second dive in May 2022, the TV film crew presented the evidence to former NASA astronaut Bruce Melnick, who suspected it was a piece of the Challenger. Based on that information, the series’ producers brought the find to the attention of NASA and in August 2022, Ciannilli confirmed it was a significant remnant of the fallen shuttle.

“The significance of this large section of Challenger’s structure was readily apparent,” underwater explorer Mike Barnette, who led the History Channel team that made the discovery, said in a statement released by A E Networks. “We recognized the need to bring this find to NASA’s immediate attention. The site, located off the Florida coast in the Bermuda Triangle, marks the death of seven brave astronauts .

” One of the first things we did was to notify all the families of space shuttle Challenger.

Keeping the memory alive

The first episode of The History Channel’s six-part series “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters,” scheduled to premiere on Nov. 22, chronicles the Challenger find, from first dive to the teams’ meeting at NASA.

” Although the incredible discovery of wreckage from Challenger wasn’t part of our initial mission to explore the Bermuda Triangle, it’s historical importance cannot be understated,” stated Eli Lehrer, executive vice-president and head of programming at The History Channel. “The Challenger is an important part of our nation’s history and we are proud to bring this important discovery to light .”

All of the debris from the fallen space shuttle Challenger remains U.S. government property. NASA is currently considering what additional actions it may take regarding the History Channel’s find that will properly honor the legacy of the fallen astronauts and the families who loved them.

” At this moment, we’re looking at options for how to proceed after this discovery. “But I can assure NASA that NASA will keep the legacy and memory of the crew and their families in mind as it plans for the future.” Ciannilli said. It’s important to keep alive the memories of the crew and mission

Copyright 2022, a Future company. All rights reserved. This material may not been published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


    Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-au

    Read More