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Debris from Challenger space shuttle found off the coast of Florida


In 1986, the Challenger launch shocked the country.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. Flight director confirms that. We are looking at - checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point.

NADWORNY: Just over a minute into its flight, the space shuttle broke apart in the sky. All seven crew members were killed. Yesterday NASA confirmed that a piece of the shuttle was recently discovered off the coast of Florida. A documentary crew searching for World War II-era wreckage found the debris on the ocean floor. Here to talk with us about this is Jennifer Levasseur. She is a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. Welcome, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LEVASSEUR: Hi there. Thanks for having me.

NADWORNY: So what do we know about the piece that they recovered?

LEVASSEUR: Well, I mean, looking at the images that have been released, it's obviously a piece of the orbiter. If you go and visit any of the space shuttles, you'll notice that the tiles that protect the vehicle for reentry, those black tiles on the bottom, have a very obvious pattern, just like tiles on a floor. And this - the visuals that we've seen so far really identify it as a part of the orbiter with those tiles.

NADWORNY: What is NASA likely to do with it?

LEVASSEUR: Well, NASA has in storage set aside down in Florida all of the pieces, all of the debris that's been recovered from both Challenger and Columbia. And so this is likely to join that. There are a few pieces of the vehicles on display down at the Kennedy Space Center. And, you know, there's possibility maybe that this would go on display someday. But really, it's been in the ocean for over 35 years, and they'll need to take care of it first.

NADWORNY: Yeah. This discovery reopens some decades-old wounds. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement that the Challenger accident was a tragedy that will, quote, "forever be seared into the collective memory of our country." What made the Challenger accident so devastating?

LEVASSEUR: Well, NASA was really, you know, selling the space shuttle program as an opportunity for more people to fly in space. And this was its signature mission. This was the mission when a teacher would fly in space. And so the nation's children - schoolchildren were really wrapped into this. And I was one of those schoolchildren myself, sitting on the floor of my fourth-grade classroom, watching it live on television. And all of the teachers I knew at the time were equally excited about the possibility that one of them could someday go into space and that this would be an indicator that more people could go into space.

And so having watched it live on television, it really - I think the idea of it being seared into the collective memory is probably the most appropriate comment I can think of in that I've heard the same story come from thousands of people basically over the years that they likewise were sitting on a classroom floor, watching it live on television. It's something you don't easily forget. It's really painful still to watch. I know it would certainly be painful for the families to watch, but it's also painful as a memory for us as Americans to think about such a devastating moment in our history.

NADWORNY: And we should say that the crew included teacher Christa McAuliffe, part of that teacher in space program you're talking about. NASA is planning to send people to the moon for the Artemis mission. How did the loss of Challenger and the shuttle Columbia in 2003 - how do they impact future missions?

LEVASSEUR: Well, they give NASA a lot to think about, and part of that is about taking risks. Of course, to get into space is a very complicated thing. And so we really have to sit back and think about what kinds of risks are worth it. And so NASA had, in the reporting and all of the studies done after both of the tragedies, a moment to reflect on its own management, on its own management of technology...


LEVASSEUR: ...And the way in which it would go through a process in order to be confident at launch.

NADWORNY: That they could send them up.



LEVASSEUR: Of course, when humans are involved in those launches, we need to be particularly careful. And so...

NADWORNY: Yeah, absolutely.

LEVASSEUR: With the Artemis 1 launch potentially coming up soon, they're going to mark off every single step on their checklist and make sure they are absolutely ready before they hit the launch button.

NADWORNY: Jennifer Levasseur from the National Air and Space Museum. Thank you.

LEVASSEUR: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.