How Much Of The Space Shuttle Challenger Is Still Lost In The Ocean?

One of the most heartbreaking disasters the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has ever witnessed was the breaking apart of the Challenger space shuttle on January 28, 1986. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, all seven on board were killed. After a lengthy investigation, experts determined that cold overnight temperatures caused the O-rings seals in the booster rockets to fail. The tragedy resulted in NASA halting shuttle missions for two years as it worked on improving shuttle features (via History).

Almost 40 years later, parts of the shuttle were accidentally discovered on the ocean floor by a television documentary crew working for the History Channel looking for World War II aircraft wreckage. On November 10, 2022, NASA confirmed the discovery was indeed fragments from the Challenger. Divers reportedly spotted a "humanmade object covered partially by sand on the seafloor," off Florida's Space Coast, northwest of the famed Bermuda Triangle.

Most of the shuttle is unaccounted for

Within 24 hours after the accident, hundreds of pounds of metal were recovered from the ocean. In March of 1986, the remains of the crew were found in the cabin, reports History. NASA found all of the important pieces of the shuttle when it closed the investigation, but most of Challenger remains in the ocean. The Associated Press reports that some 118 tons of Challenger debris have been recovered since 1986, representing about 47% of the shuttle, meaning more than half of the craft is still unaccounted for. The New York Times reports that half of the orbiter and boosters, two-thirds of the external fuel tank, and one-fourth of the satellite payload have yet to be recovered.

Some of the pieces recovered are on display in a NASA exhibit entitled "Forever Remembered," which includes wreckage and astronaut artifacts from not only the Challenger shuttle, but also the Columbia shuttle, which exploded on reentry in 2003. One piece of the Challenger wreckage is part of the fuselage that bears an American flag (pictured above).

Other pieces of wreckage have been discovered

This isn't the first time that pieces of the Challenger shuttle have been inadvertently discovered. In 1991, fishermen found a small tank and a metal fragment a few feet off Cape Canaveral, according to The New York Times. The fragments were also allegedly from the left wing of the craft. 

Then, in December 1996, two sections of the shuttle washed ashore at Cocoa Beach, which sits 20 miles south of the Kennedy Space Center. The Tampa Bay Times reports that beachgoers found two sections of the Challenger's left inboard wing flap covered in barnacles in the early morning hours. One piece measured about 8 by 14 feet and the other was about 5 feet long and 1 foot wide. NASA reportedly put the wreckage with the other 5,000 pieces of the shuttle that weigh a combined quarter of a million pounds in two silos.