A stunning discovery has been made 36 years after the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
NASA officials tell ABC13 that a 20-foot segment of the shuttle was discovered and recovered by divers off the East coast of Florida.
The dive team was working for a History Channel documentary about the Bermuda Triangle and looking for wreckage of a World War II-era aircraft when they noticed a large humanmade object covered partially by sand on the seafloor, NASA says.
I am rather confident that it is one of the largest pieces ever found of Challenger," NASA program manager, Mike Ciannilli said.
Because of the proximity to the Florida Space Coast, the item's modern construction and the presence of 8-inch square tiles, the documentary team contacted NASA, who wanted to ensure that the surviving family members of the Challenger crew were notified first.
It should be noted that while the documentary is about the Bermuda Triangle, the artifact was found well northwest of that area.
NASA hasn't said what part of the shuttle the artifact could be from. However, founder of collectSPACE.com, Robert Pearlman said there are a couple possibilities. Both the wings and the underbelly of the orbiter were lined with heat shield tiles," Pearlman explained. "So it could be a large piece of the underbelly of the orbiter.
Retired NASA Astronaut Clayton Anderson said this discovery is important because it could educate a new generation into what happened in 1986. It brings back a lot of memories, right? It brings back good memories and bad memories," Anderson said. "I think its important for folks to reconnect with Challenger through these guys finding a piece of the vehicle.
The video below looks at coverage of the Challenger disaster and how the astronauts have been remembered.
On Jan. 28, 1986, seven astronauts were killed when the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after launch. It broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean, making recovery difficult.
Among those on board was New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had been chosen by NASA to be the first teacher in space. She was going to work on the crew as a payload specialist. The other six crew members were payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, mission specialist Judith A. Resnik, mission commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission specialist Ronald E. McNair, pilot Mike J. Smith and mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka.
The shuttle took off just before noon from the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Florida. Americans watched from the ground below and on televisions around the country. Many of them were schoolchildren, who had high interest in the launch because of McAuliffe.
After launch, a booster engine broke apart, according to NASA. Just 73 seconds into the flight, the space shuttle exploded in midair, breaking apart.
It has been a subject of dispute whether all seven astronauts died from the explosion or whether some of them may have been alive until they fell to the ground. It was the first time NASA lost an astronaut during a flight.
According to NASA, by law, space shuttle artifacts remain U.S. government property, so anyone who thinks they have found an artifact should always contact NASA for information on how to return it.
As for what's next, NASA said that it's "carefully considering additional actions to take that will properly honor the legacy of the Challenger, the crew members who were lost, and the families who loved them."
"Challenger and her crew live on in the hearts and memories of NASA and the nation. NASA remains committed to applying the hard lessons from the past to improve the safety of space exploration in the future," NASA continued.
The night of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan addressed the American people. After expressing condolences to the families of those killed, he reflected on the country's space exploration.
"We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers," he said.
He continued to address the schoolchildren who had been watching, telling them that tragedy is sometimes part of the process of expanding our horizons.
"The future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave," he said. "The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."
NASA observes a Day of Remembrance on Jan. 28 for more than one somber anniversary. It also remembers those who died in the Apollo 1 and Columbia accidents. The Apollo 1 fire that killed three was on Jan. 27, 1967, while the Columbia disaster that killed seven happened on Feb. 1, 2003.
In the Columbia accident, pieces were left scattered across several states. The Columbia Accident Investigating Board rebuilt it piece by piece inside a hangar at the Kennedy Space Center.
The Jan. 28 anniversary of Challenger and the 1967 Apollo I disaster were especially hard on the Houston area and the Johnson Space Center.
"Thousands of people in Friendswood were devoted to the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs," said mayor Mike Foreman in a statement. "They 'dreamed big,' devoting their careers and their hearts to help our nation explore space. On behalf of a grateful City, I extend my condolences to all of the astronaut's families, NASA employees and everyone touched by these tragedies. We will never forget your dedication and sacrifice."