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'Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes' recounts space shuttle tragedy 30 years later

Launch of NASA's space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51L at 11:38 a.m. EST on January 28, 1986. A National Geographic special recalls the events that preceded and followed the launch. (NASA)
Jan. 25, 2016

– On the evening of Jan. 28, 1986, 30 years ago this week, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and astronaut and Senator John Glenn met with NASA's space shuttle launch team, who hours earlier had lost Challenger and its seven member crew to a then-still-unknown cause just 73 seconds into flight.

Speaking to the controllers from inside the Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Bush offered his respects on what he described as "one of the toughest, if not the toughest day" in NASA's history. Glenn, speaking more philosophically, considered the years of triumphs the space agency had achieved.

"Really, if we're honest about it, and honest with ourselves, beyond our wildest dreams, I would have never thought we would ever go this far without losing some people," Glenn stated. "We come to a time when something happens and we have a tragedy that goes along with our triumphs, and I guess that's the story of all mankind."

John Glenn addresses the Challenger launch team at the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. (NASA/National Geographic)

The meeting in the control center that night was private, but a NASA camera recorded the two men's remarks for posterity. Three decades later, that footage may have been all but forgotten were it not for the researchers behind the one-hour documentary "Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes," which debuts tonight (Jan. 25) on the National Geographic Channel.

"One of our researchers asked [NASA] what happened in the launch center in the hours after the accident," said Tom Jennings, executive producer and director of the special, in an interview with collectSPACE.

Learning of the meeting, Jennings requested the video.

"I kept asking everyone who was old enough to remember, 'Do you remember this footage? Do you remember seeing this?' and no one could remember it," Jennings recalled. "We watched a bunch of documentaries on Challenger and nobody had used this before."

"Unless we had bothered to ask, nobody would have ever seen that," he said.

Most of the footage that comprises "Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes" is more iconic than that example, but the way in which the video clips have been arranged and how the story of the tragedy is told is equally unique. Rather than use a narrator to recount the accident, Jennings turned to seldom-accessed broadcast archives from January 1986.

Click here to enlarge and watch in new pop-up window. (NatGeo)

"We found audio files from a local radio station in Concord, New Hampshire, where [Teacher in Space finalist] Christa McAuliffe was from," said Jennings. "By using these voices that people are not accustomed to hearing, the story takes on a kind of immediacy, as if you are hearing it for the first time."

"That audio, whether it is from radio or NASA or from any other type of recording, that audio becomes our narration," he said.

The documentary opens with footage of McAuliffe standing inside a shuttle training mockup, practicing the educational lessons she planned to deliver from space. It then jumps to video of Challenger on the launch pad as the news director at WJYY radio in Concord describes the scene.

"It was in July 1985, when Christa McAuliffe beat out better than one thousand other teachers to be chosen to be the first private citizen in space," Little is heard saying. "We're just minutes away from Christa's blast off, a very exciting time at [the] Kennedy Space Center."

That excitement would soon turn to devastation, which is why it was important to Jennings that the documentary be respectful to the memory of the crew, including McAuliffe, STS-51L mission commander Francis "Dick" Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ron McNair and Ellison Onizuka, and payload specialist Greg Jarvis.

"In my first conversation with the network I said that we really wanted to make sure that people don't feel that we're taking advantage of the tragedy," he stated. "We wanted to make sure that how ever we presented the story, it would not just be about Challenger blowing up. It would celebrate who [the astronauts] were and what they were about."

Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's backup for the ill-fated STS-51L mission and later the first educator-astronaut to fly into space, said that Jennings succeeded.

Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe (left) and her back-up Barbara Morgan seen together during training. (NASA)

"Thirty years later, it's still difficult to watch footage of the Challenger. However, the National Geographic Channel special is very compelling and respectful," said Morgan in a statement released by the network.

With the viewing audience now including adults who were either not alive or old enough to remember what happened to Challenger, Jennings hopes that his documentary can impart why what happened merits understanding.

"To me, it is an important moment that people should know about," Jennings said, reflecting on how the 1986 tragedy shaped NASA's course in the three decades that followed. "And for young people, it is unfortunately the type of story they might not know, unless they watch a film like this. And they should know it."

"Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes" premieres Monday (Jan. 25) at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel. The one-hour special will also air on Jan. 28, the same day that the space shuttle Challenger was lost 30 years ago.

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