NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger was the second orbiter of the Space Shuttle programme to be put into service, after Columbus. It was launched and landed nine times before tragically breaking apart 73 seconds into its 10th mission, STS-51-L, on January 28, 1986, resulting in the death of all seven crew members. The rocket’s fuselage broke up and scattered across the Atlantic into numerous pieces, expected to be lost forever.
However, more than a decade on, two barnacle-covered chunks of the shuttle washed ashore near the Kennedy Space Centre.
The details were revealed during Amazon Prime’s 1999 “Phenomenon” series.
The narrator explained: “In 1996, early morning joggers on Cocoa Beach, Florida, came upon an object that was washed ashore during the night.
“After careful examination, the object was revealed as part of the remains from the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
“Astonishingly, the Challenger incident happened 22 miles away from Cocoa Beach, and over a decade earlier.”
One piece was identified by NASA engineers as Challenger’s left inboard wing flap, or elevon, a segment from the base of the shuttle’s left wing that helped steer the orbiter during entry and landing.
The second piece came ashore several metres to the south and engineers believed it broke away from the larger piece.
Ron Phelps, a NASA project manager at the Florida spaceport, said he was surprised such a large piece of wreckage managed to find its way ashore from more than a dozen miles out to sea where it originally landed.
He explained in 1996: “This piece, structurally, is the complete inboard elevon of the left-wing, and that’s like eight feet on one end by six feet on the other by 14 feet long.
The hunt for wreckage turned into the largest underwater search and salvage operation since mines were cleared from European harbours after World War 2.
NASA spent about £18million on the operation in the effort to prove what went wrong.
Challenger’s right-wing was recovered, but when salvors attempted to pull up the left-wing using cables attached to its landing gear, the gear broke away and the wing settled back to the ocean floor.
Because it was not central to the accident investigation, no other attempts were made to recover the left-wing.
Ultimately, about 50 percent of the space shuttle vehicle – some 250,000 pounds of debris – was recovered.