A documentary film crew looking for the wreckage of a World War II-era aircraft has discovered a large piece of Challenger, the space shuttle that broke apart and killed all seven people onboard nearly four decades ago.
NASA confirmed the discovery on Thursday, saying its officials viewed footage of the underwater dive off the east coast of Florida.
“[T]his tragedy will forever be seared in the collective memory of our country,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “”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.”
NASA manager Michael Ciannilli said it’s one of the biggest pieces of Challenger found since the accident on Jan. 28, 1986, and the first remnant to be discovered since two fragments from the left wing washed ashore in 1996.
“Of course, the emotions come back, right?” Ciannilli said. “My heart skipped a beat, I must say, and it brought me right back to 1986 … and what we all went through as a nation.”
Divers for a TV documentary first spotted the piece in March while looking for the wreckage of a World War II plane. NASA verified through video a few months ago that the piece was part of the shuttle that broke apart shortly after liftoff.
The piece is more than 15 feet by 15 feet; it’s likely bigger because part of it is covered with sand. Because there are square thermal tiles on the piece, it’s believed to be from the shuttle’s belly, Ciannilli said.
The fragment remains on the ocean floor just off the Florida coast near Cape Canaveral as NASA determines the next step. It remains the property of the U.S. government.
Roughly 118 tons of Challenger debris, or roughly 47% of the entire vehicle, have been recovered, including parts of the two solid-fuel boosters and external fuel tank.
Most of the recovered wreckage remains buried in abandoned missile silos at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The exception is a left side shuttle panel on display at Kennedy Space Center’s visitor complex.
Launched on an exceptionally cold morning, Challenger was brought down by eroded O-ring seals in the right booster. All seven on board were killed, including the first schoolteacher bound for space, Christa McAuliffe. Their families have been notified of the recent discovery.
“We want to make sure whatever we do, we do the right thing for the legacy of the crew,” Ciannilli said.
NASA said the loss of Challenger and Columbia – which broke up on reentry in February 2003, killing seven astronauts – greatly influenced NASA’s culture regarding safety.
A History Channel documentary detailing the latest Challenger discovery airs Nov. 22.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.