Certain images are permanently etched into our memory, and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion is one of them. On Jan. 28, 1986, with the eyes of the world watching, the space shuttle abruptly burst into flames during a live television broadcast. All seven crewmembers died, including a social studies teacher who was supposed to be the first American civilian in space. The heartbreaking tragedy instantly became a defining moment in American history.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, National Geographic Channel combed through long-forgotten news footage, radio reports, audio recordings and rarely seen NASA footage to retell the events leading up to, during and immediately after that fateful day.
Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes, premiering Thursday January 28 at 9.30pm, takes viewers behind the scenes of this compelling and historic story in a way never before seen. Produced by Peabody-award winning producers, the one-hour special includes no narration and no commentators, instead unfolding 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 who were part of the one-of-a-kind mission.
The special follows the story of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew, specifically Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. The 37-year-old mother of two was chosen from thousands of applicants to be the first teacher in space as part of President Ronald Reagan’s initiative to bring interplanetary studies into the classroom.
During one of the opening scenes in Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes, viewers see rare footage of McAuliffe rehearsing lesson plans on board 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 across the United States.
America’s excitement and enthusiasm about the Teacher in Space Program is chronicled in the documentary, from the initial presidential announcement, through the search to find the perfect teacher and the winner’s yearlong astronaut training, to its unexpected and tragic final moments. The documentary features NASA interviews with some of the top 10 finalists, in which McAuliffe talks about being a lifelong adventurer who plans to share her experience with her class. Just 48 days before the launch, cameras capture the teacher-turned-astronaut giving a guided tour of the space shuttle to her supportive family.
After McAuliffe was selected as the winner, Bryant Gumbel of “Today Show” asked her if she was nervous. “Not yet,” she 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.” Her words are still haunting 30 years later.
Some of the rarely seen and iconic moments featured in the special include the following:
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 take-off, 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 first-hand.
Behind-the-scenes NASA footage of Vice President George Bush and Senator John Glenn talking to members of the Challenger launch team hours after the explosion. They both travelled 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 as reporters scrambled to cover the explosion as it happened.
The compelling footage and audio recordings are intricately linked together to capture the drama of what happened and the lasting effect it had in Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes.
Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes is produced by 1895 Films for National Geographic Channels. For 1895 Films, Tom Jennings is executive producer and director. For National Geographic Channels, Simon Young is commissioning editor and executive producer, Michael J. Miller is executive producer, Hamish Mykura is executive vice president of programming and development and Tim Pastore is president of original programming and production.