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  • 01.25.16

National Geographic Honors The Fallen Challenger Astronauts With 30th Anniversary Doc

Rarely seen behind-the-scenes footage commemorates the Challenger astronauts and Teacher in Space Project winner Christa McAuliffe.

Grab a box of tissues. This one’s going to be tough.

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Thirty years ago, on January 28, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lift-off over Cape Canaveral, Florida. Aboard were seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old Concord, NH, high school educator selected from more than 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space.

Teacher in Space participant Christa McAuliffe (L) joins Challenger’s crew— Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, Mission Specialist Judy Resnik, Commander Dick Scobee, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair, Pilot Michael Smith, and Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka—in the White Room at Pad 39B following the end of a launch dress rehearsal.Photo: NASA

The explosion jarred a nation, most notably thousands of children and teens watching live feeds in school, with the ensuing tendrils of smoke etched in a collective memory. The disaster, caused by freezing temperatures compromising the integrity of the rocket booster seals, forced NASA to restructure its culture and flight rate, and prompted a NASA Day of Remembrance every January for all of the people who lost their lives in pursuit of space exploration.

For the 30th anniversary, National Geographic Channel has chosen to honor the Challenger astronauts, and McAuliffe in particular, through the documentary Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes, which premieres tonight. What makes this take a bit different is its construction solely of un-narrated footage. It takes the viewer through McAuliffe’s selection, training (from rehearsing how she would introduce the shuttle crew and conduct lesson plans from space, to showing her visiting husband and two young children around), heading excitedly to the shuttle with the other astronauts, and the aftermath.

The Challenger crewmember remains are being transferred from 7 hearse vehicles to a MAC C-141 transport plane at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.Photo: NASA

The effect is more visceral, says director Tom Jennings, whose Calabasas, CA, 1895 Films has acquired a reputation and a Peabody Award for its non-narrated documentaries.

Director Tom JenningsPhoto: Michael Helms

“Without having experts telling you what you’re looking at, you’re almost living through it,” he says. “You’re watching, and waiting for the narrator to come and save you, but he never shows up and you become very engaged. We found a lot of local radio reporting from Concord, NH. Hearing those voices helped me tell the story in a way that makes it feel like you’re watching it for the first time, whether you’re familiar with the story on not.”

Jennings and his team spent five months culling more than 200 hours of raw and broadcast quality audio and video tape, some of them nuggets that had never been aired, like CNN newsroom footage of the journalists getting a handle on the Challenger story, and then-Vice President George H. W. Bush and astronaut-turned-senator John Glenn speaking to Johnson Space Center Mission Control employees.

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A particularly eerie segment takes place when Bryant Gumbel interviews McAuliffe on the Today Show and asks if she’s nervous.

“Not yet,” she says. “Maybe when I’m strapped in and those rockets are going off underneath me I will be, but space flight today really seems safe.”

The film also highlighted Barbara Morgan, a elementary school teacher from Idaho serving as McAuliffe’s back-up, who, at the time, had been relegated to a footnote.

“I’m old enough to remember when it happened, and I didn’t remember her,” says Jennings, now 54, who was barely out of college at the time. “She was in all the footage with Christa. I kept saying, ‘Who’s this person shadowing her?’ She was always right there. We realized she could be a way to further experience the loss of Christa and the crew by being so close to them.”

Morgan would eventually make it to space. Twelve years later, she became an astronaut candidate and in 2007 flew as a Mission Specialist aboard the Endeavour. She’s now a Distinguished Educator in Residence at Boise State University. McAuliffe would have been 67 today.

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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