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Section of destroyed space shuttle Challenger found on ocean floor

Divers explore a segment of the space shuttle Challenger that the team discovered in the waters off the coast of Florida.
Underwater explorer and marine biologist Mike Barnette and wreck diver Jimmy Gadomski explore a 20-foot segment of the space shuttle Challenger that the team discovered in the waters off the coast of Florida.
(The History Channel via Associated Press)
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A large section of the destroyed space shuttle Challenger has been found buried in sand at the bottom of the Atlantic, more than three decades after the tragedy that killed a schoolteacher and six others.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center announced the discovery Thursday. It’s one of the biggest pieces of Challenger ever found in the decades since the accident, said Michael Ciannilli, a NASA manager in charge of the remains of both lost shuttles, Challenger and Columbia.

“Upon first hearing about it, it brings you right back to 1986,” Ciannilli said.

Divers for a TV documentary crew first spotted the piece in March while seeking wreckage of a World War II plane. NASA recently verified through video that the piece was part of the shuttle that broke apart shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. All seven on board were killed, including the first schoolteacher bound for space, Christa McAuliffe.

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The remnant is more than 15 feet by 15 feet; it’s likely bigger because part of it is covered with sand. Because of the presence of square thermal tiles, it’s believed to be from the shuttle’s belly, officials 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.

Ciannilli said the families of all seven Challenger crew members have been notified.

A History Channel documentary detailing the discovery airs Nov. 22.

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