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Film crew stumbles upon piece of Challenger 36 years after tragedy, NASA says

The space shuttle Challenger hangs at a NASA building in 1985. (Phil Sandlin/AP)

A History Channel documentary crew has discovered a piece of the space shuttle Challenger — which broke apart after takeoff in 1986 — on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, NASA announced Thursday.

It marks the first discovery of Challenger debris in more than 25 years, according to the History Channel, which will air footage of the find when it premieres a series about the Bermuda Triangle on Nov. 22.

In a preview posted to Twitter, two divers explore a large panel covered in orange tiles, partially covered by sand on the seafloor.

“Definitely an aircraft, I think we need to talk to NASA,” one of the divers says.

Agency officials viewed the footage and confirmed that the piece belonged to Challenger, NASA said in a news release Thursday. The agency did not say when the film crew discovered the fragment, which was submerged off Florida’s eastern coast near Cape Canaveral and remains on the seafloor.

By law, remnants of the space shuttles belong to the federal government, and NASA is considering what to do with the newly discovered piece “that will properly honor the legacy of Challenger’s fallen astronauts and the families who loved them,” it said.

Seven astronauts died when the spacecraft broke up 73 seconds after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986.

An investigation later revealed that cold temperatures the morning of launch compromised the seal of O-rings in one of the rocket boosters. Several employees had raised concerns after seeing ice on the launch tower, but managers overruled them and cleared the Challenger to launch.

A Challenger engineer blamed himself for 30 years. Then this ‘miracle’ happened.

The newly discovered piece is one of the largest discovered since the explosion and the first since 1996, NASA program manager Michael Ciannilli told the Associated Press.

“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,” Ciannilli, who oversees the agency’s Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program, told the Associated Press.

President Reagan was supposed to give his State of the Union address that night, but instead spoke about about the Challenger explosion. (Video: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

NASA estimates that it has recovered just under half the debris of Challenger, roughly 118 tons. Most of that sits in closed silos at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, according to the AP. Several fragments are on permanent display in an exhibit at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a news release Thursday that the Challenger accident “still feels like yesterday” and will be always be a reminder for the agency to put safety first.

‘We’ve lost ’em, God bless ’em’: What it was like to witness the Challenger disaster

“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,” Nelson said. “At NASA, the core value of safety is — and must forever remain — our top priority, especially as our missions explore more of the cosmos than ever before.”

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