NGC special marks 30th anniversary of Challenger disaster

Jeff Pfeiffer
Space Shuttle Challenger STS-51L crew members: in the back row from left to right: Mission Specialist, Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher in Space Participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Greg Jarvis and Mission Specialist, Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Pilot Mike Smith, Commander, Dick Scobee and Mission Specialist, Ron McNair.

I can still remember sitting in my sophomore homeroom on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, when our school’s principal came on the intercom system to inform us of the tragedy that had occurred when, 73 seconds into its launch, the space shuttle Challenger abruptly burst into flames and broke apart, killing all seven crew members. Among the deceased was Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher who was supposed to be the first American civilian in space. Thirty years on, the image of the Challenger disaster has become embedded into the psyches of most Americans who are old enough to remember the event, and a new National Geographic Channel (NGC) special delves into what happened.

Space Shuttle Challenger STS-51L crew members: in the back row from left to right: Mission Specialist, Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher in Space Participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Greg Jarvis and Mission Specialist, Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Pilot Mike Smith, Commander, Dick Scobee and Mission Specialist, Ron McNair.
Space Shuttle Challenger STS-51L crew members: in the back row from left to right: Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher in Space Participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and Mission Specialist Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Pilot Mike Smith, Commander Dick Scobee and Mission Specialist Ron McNair.

Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes premieres Jan. 25 at 9pm ET, and is from the Peabody Award-winning producers of MLK: The Assassination Tapes. The one-hour program includes no narration and no commentators, instead telling the story solely through the reports of journalists covering the story at the time, extensive audio and video recordings from NASA, and archived interviews with the flight crew and others.

Among the rare footage featured in program is that of McAuliffe rehearsing lesson plans onboard the space shuttle and later testing out science experiments in a gravity-free environment. These lessons were intended to be done live from space and beamed into classrooms nationwide. As with watching the explosion itself, these scenes and others — brimming with optimism and excitement —  can be difficult to watch with the hindsight of knowing what will befall these crew members, but they do show the passion that they all had for their mission. Especially haunting are McAuliffe’s words when interviewed by Bryant Gumbel after she was selected the winner of the Teacher in Space program. Gumbel asked her if she was nervous. “Not yet,” McAuliffe said. “Maybe when I’m strapped in and those rockets are going off underneath me I will be, but space flight today really seems safe.”

Other rarely seen, as well as iconic, moments featured in the special include:

    • NASA’s interviews with Christa McAuliffe, the winner of the Teacher in Space Program, and Barbara Morgan, the backup teacher who was selected to train alongside Christa in case of any last-minute problems
    • Candid video and photos of McAuliffe touring the space shuttle with her husband and two young children
    • Audio recordings from inside the Challenger cockpit during takeoff, including Cmdr. Dick Scobee’s final words just before the space shuttle exploded
    • Footage of the launch pad during the launch at Canaveral, Fla., and inside Mission Control in Houston, Tex., as the disaster unfolded
    • Video of students at Concord High School in New Hampshire, who watched in horror as the space shuttle exploded with their beloved teacher inside it, as well as unforgettable video of those seated in the Grand Stand at the launch site, who witnessed the explosion firsthand.
    • Behind-the-scenes NASA footage of Vice President George Bush and Sen. John Glenn talking to members of the Challenger launch team hours after the explosion.  They both traveled to Houston to tell the launch team that the nation was standing with them.
    • Recordings of local New Hampshire radio reporters who followed Christa during the year that she prepared for the launch, and their eyewitness accounts as they stood in the grandstands watching the tragedy unfold.
    • Behind-the-scenes footage at the CNN Newsroom in Atlanta as reporters scrambled to cover the explosion as it happened.

 Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes airs Jan. 25 at 9pm ET on NGC.

The special re-airs on the 30th anniversary of the event, Jan. 28, at 9pm ET on NGC.

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Photo credit: NASA