The doomed Space Shuttle Challenger lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986, moments before an explosion killed all seven astronauts aboard. File Photo by UPI | License Photo
Nov. 11 (UPI) -- Divers off the east coast of Florida have discovered remnants from the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center more than 36 years ago.
A television crew inadvertently made the find while searching for the wreckage of a World War II-era warplane at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
That's where the dive team noticed a large, flat metal object with distinct 8-inch square tiles lying on the ocean floor.
The item's proximity to Florida's Space Coast prompted the History Channel crew to contact NASA, which issued a statement Thursday confirming the item was indeed a piece from Challenger.
The discovery was the first related to the doomed space flight in more than 25 years, with NASA taking possession of the artifact as required by law.
The explosion that destroyed Challenger occurred 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard: flight commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialist Ronald E. McNair, who would have been the second Black astronaut to reach space; Ellison S. Onizuka, who was the first Asian-American in space; engineer Gregory B. Jarvis; and Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected to become the first schoolteacher in space.
"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," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wrote.
"For millions around the globe, myself included, Jan. 28, 1986, still feels like yesterday."
An investigation later found that fuel seals in segments of the ship's solid rocket boosters had been compromised due to ice and freezing temperatures on the day of the launch.
The documentary about the unexpected discovery is set to air Nov. 22 on History Channel, although the entire series is about the mystery surrounding vessels that have disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle.
The space shuttle program was retired in 2011 following the Columbia disaster in 2003 that killed seven astronauts.