Debris from Challenger shuttle disaster found off Florida coast

Dive team discovered space vehicle ‘artifact’ from 1986 explosion that killed all seven astronauts onboard, including civilian teacher

Nasa has confirmed the recovery of debris from the Challenger spaceship that exploded less than two minutes after its launch and killed all seven members onboard in 1986.

In Thursday’s announcement, the space agency said the “artifact” was discovered by a film crew that was in search of aircraft from the second world war off the east coast of Florida.

Divers found a human-made element that was covered in sand and, given the location was near Florida’s “space coast” where the mission was launched from, they reached out to Nasa.

“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,” the Nasa administrator, Bill Nelson, said in the statement. “For millions around the globe, myself included, 28 January 1986 still feels like yesterday.”

Despite some concerns shared by shuttle employees, the agency had given a green light for the takeoff on that day. An investigation later found that there was a major malfunction due to freezing temperatures that compromised the strength of the machinery, specifically the shuttle’s O-ring seals, which are used to keep fluids from leaking and components sealed.

An image of the space shuttle exploding.
The space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lifting off from Kennedy space center in Florida on 28 January 1986. Photograph: Bruce Weaver/AP

The Challenger is remembered today as the shuttle that altered “Nasa’s space program forever”, and it left a strong legacy. It was the second shuttle to make it to space, and had completed nine journeys between 1983 and 1986 before it exploded during launch. It was also the shuttle that carried the first US woman and the first African American into space, according to

The ambitious nature of Nasa’s program in that period was illustrated by the people it decided to place onboard Challenger, including a teacher who planned to conduct a class for her students from orbit, which led to it being termed “the teacher flight” in the buildup to launch. The teacher, 37-year-old ​​Christa McAuliffe, was the first civilian to head to space, and had prevailed over a pool of 11,000 applicants to secure the spot.

The 1986 disaster that killed all seven members onboard was portrayed in the 2020 Netflix documentary Challenger: The Final Flight.

The accident dampened Nasa’s ambition of opening space travel to American civilians, the Smithsonian reported in 2016. Civilians, namely billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, have since traveled to space through by own means.

• This article was amended on 11 November 2022 to correct a misspelling of the last name of Jeff Bezos and to remove Elon Musk as an example of a civilian who has travelled to space.


Samira Asma-Sadeque

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Challenger space shuttle disaster amateur video discovered
Video of the 1986 disaster was locked in Florida man's basement for almost 25 years

Richard Luscombe

04, Feb, 2010 @9:56 AM

Article image
End of the space shuttle programme spells disaster for local economy

When the space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth, 2,000 Kennedy Space Centre employees will be laid off, bringing job losses from the shuttle programme close to 10,000

Richard Luscombe, Cape Canaveral

07, Jul, 2011 @2:27 PM

Article image
The Challenger space shuttle disaster at 30: how the Guardian covered the tragedy
The five men and two women were just 73 seconds into their flight when Challenger blew up

Jason Rodrigues

28, Jan, 2016 @1:58 PM

Article image
Atlantis makes final touch down - video

Nasa employees gathered at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to welcome Atlantis home for the last time after 126m miles travelled and the last ever shuttle flight

21, Jul, 2011 @2:35 PM

Article image
Atlantis space shuttle launch threatened by storms

Cape Canaveral downpours could postpone shuttle's final mission by up to 10 days, warns Nasa weather expert

Alok Jha, science correspondent

07, Jul, 2011 @7:07 PM

Article image
Discovery space shuttle makes final journey - video

Nasa's oldest retired shuttle leaves the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida bolted on to the top of a specially modified jet plane

17, Apr, 2012 @12:59 PM

Article image
Space shuttle launch in doubt as fuel tanks are filled
Bad weather is expected to hit Cape Canaveral in the next few hours but the space shuttle is fuelled and the astronauts are about to make their way to the launchpad

Alok Jha, science correspondent

08, Jul, 2011 @11:12 AM

Article image
Space shuttle Atlantis lands at Cape Canaveral for the last time

Nasa employees turn out in darkness to welcome the space shuttle home after 126 million miles travelled

Richard Luscombe in Cape Canaveral

21, Jul, 2011 @10:42 AM

Article image
Space shuttle Atlantis touches down, ending an era of adventure in space

Nasa employees weep at Kennedy Space Centre as half a century of American dominance in space comes to a close

Richard Luscombe in Cape Canaveral

21, Jul, 2011 @4:59 PM

Shuttle return delayed by debris

Nasa called off the space shuttle's return to Earth last night amid fears it might have been struck by a chunk of debris seen floating away from the orbiter.

Richard Luscombe in Miami

19, Sep, 2006 @11:08 PM