Wreckage of the Challenger: A recent example of Space Archaeology

The cosmos have always fascinated humanity. In the contemporary era, space is the subject of much research and speculation, to the point where various autonomous and crewed craft have been sent to drift among the stars. But not every Space Mission is successful. The path to the stars is much like the path up Mount Everest; guided by the bodies of those who failed in prior attempts. 

For the people of  America, the most significant of Space-Related disasters is the Challenger Disaster; on January 28, 1986, the spacecraft Challenger launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, only to explode in the air, leading to the destruction of the craft and the death of the seven astronauts on board, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Salvage operations afterwards were able to recover some of but not all of the wreckage from the disaster; the force of the explosion as well as the various paths taken by the detached rockets led to the debris being scattered across a broad area of Ocean (Britannica 2023). A portion of the craft was rediscovered just over a year ago  off of Florida’s Space Coast in November of 2022. The re-discovery of debris from the Challenger is hailed as significant not merely because it recovers a piece of the craft, but because it has been labeled as a stellar example of Space Archaeology. 

“Space Archaeology” is a term coined by Australian archaeologist Alice Gorman that refers to the study of man-made structures (artifacts) made for space exploration or travel, such as satellites and ships, but also including the tools, machines, and debris left behind by space missions both on and beyond earth, such as landing craters on the moon or discarded command modules in the ocean (Gorman 2019) The wreckage of the Challenger fits that description to a T. 

The wreckage in question was found by some divers working for the History Channel in search of Second-World-War-Era Aircraft wreckage, who found some human-made debris poking out of the sand bearing the characteristic tile patterns of Space Craft Heat Shielding. The discovery was documented with videos and pictures that were sent to NASA, who verified the discovery as a missing piece of the Challenger (Independent UK 2022). So a group of divers preforming Archaeology, in the sense of the search for man-made artifacts to contextualize history, found a man-made artifact. The artifact in question happened to pertain to space exploration, so this most certainly could be considered “Space Archaeology.”

This is another addition to a long line of archaeological discoveries made more or less by accident, such as the discovery of the Lascaux caves full of Neolithic art by French teenagers in the 1940s, with the only difference being that the discovery is of a far more recently made structure. The re-discovery of the Challenger wreckage is significant because it shows of Space Archaeology is not simply a theoretical concept, nor is it merely concerned with artifacts beyond earth; it can be as close to home as the Florida coast, and as accessible to the public as cameras and scuba equipment. 

Fig. 1. The Crew of the Challenger. McAuliffe stands furthest to the left. Jan. 9, 1986. Photo from NASA Communications.
Fig. 2. Divers find wreckage from the Challenger off of Florida’s Space Coast. Image from the History Channel, uploaded to the History Channel official Twitter/X acct. (2022)

NASA Communications. 11/10/2022. “NASA views images, confirms discovery of Challenger artifact.”
Cook, Kevin. 2021. “The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster.” New York City, Henry Holt and Co.

Works Cited
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 10/16/2023. “Challenger Disaster.” https://www.britannica.com/event/Challenger-disaster
Kelvey, Jon. 11/10/2022. “History Channel Divers find piece of exploded space shuttle Challenger, says NASA.”
Gorman, Alice. 2019. “Dr. Space Junk vs. The Universe: Archaeology and the Future.” Cambridge, the MIT Press.

The Princes in the Tower: Modern Forensic Anthropology meets Medieval Crime

The field of Forensic Anthropology is an interesting one because it has both modern-day and historic applications. Forensic Anthropology can be applied in a modern context in a legal capacity, but by applying Forensic Anthropological Techniques to past human remains, we can discover who they were, how they perished, who they were related to, where they came from, et cetera, and thereby are presented with a wealth of information on an individual and their circumstances, which can inform us on the era they lived in. Such discoveries are always significant, such as in the case of the “Princes in the Tower;” Prince Edward V and Duke Richard IV of York. 

In 1483, during the “War of the Roses,”  Richard III seized the throne of England from his nephews Edward V (age 12) and Richard IV (9 yrs.), confining them to the Tower of London, allegedly for their own safety, where less and less was seen of them before they mysteriously vanished from all records. Of course, everyone assumed that power-hungry Richard III had done away with his nephews, but nothing could be proved until near two centuries later, when construction on the Tower in 1674 led to the discovery of a wooden chest containing what were believed to be the bones of the vanished princes, clad in velvet. They were interred in Westminster abbey, where they have only been disturbed once [The Princes in the Tower].

In 1933 the bones were examined by Lawrence E. Tanner and William Wright, Anthropologists from Cambridge University, who determined that the bones belonged to two boys, ages 10 and 12 (the ages of the Princes at the time) who had been related by blood [Wallace/Camping-Harris, 2022]. Their examination of the jawbones revealed several missing teeth, which they likened to a congenital condition suffered by the Princes’ paternal grandmother Dutchess Cecily of York. But this was far from definite. In 2012 the remains of King Richard III were discovered and examined more thoroughly. These results were compared to Tanner and Wright’s findings, and some inconsistencies were found. For example, Richard III, uncle of Edward V and Richard IV, did not exhibit the same dental condition of their nephews’ remains and their grandmother’s [The Princes in the Tower], which raised questions about Richard III’s relations to the remains, and whether or not the remains were the Princes’ at all. These questions still have yet to be answered. The British Crown has refused any and all requests to further examine the remains. The only concrete evidence we have is that the bones belonged to children, though some speculate they could have belonged to more than 2 individuals. The proposed dental link between the remains and Dutchess Cecily is intriguing, but too small to draw full conclusions from. With modern technology, far more detailed analysis such as DNA sequencing could be conducted, but not unless the Crown consents to the bones’ further disturbance. 

Princes Edward and Richard rendered in oil by John Everett Millia (1829-96), from the Royal Holloway, University of London/Bridgeman Images
The Tower of London where the Princes were confined still stands to this day (getty images)


Wallace, Naomi and Camping-Harris, Marnie. 11/06/2022. “Skeletons in Westminster: Is it Time to Solve the Mystery of the Princes in the Tower?” Retrospect Journal (Accessed 9/29/2023)

“The Princes in the Tower,” Historic Royal Palaces (Accessed 9/30/2023)


“Edward V and Richard, Duke of York,” Westminster Abbey Commemorations (Accessed 9/30/2023)


“Research reveals the DNA of the ‘Princes in the Tower,’” University of Essex News (Accessed 9/29/2023)


Further Reading

More on a Murder: The Deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ and Historiographical Implications for the Regimes of Henry VII and Henry VIII (Tim Thorton, University of Huddersfield)


Recent Investigations regarding the Princes in the Tower (Lawrence E. Tanner and William Wright, Cambridge University)