Anniversary of Challenger Disaster Remembered in Documentary

The launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. . (Photo: NASA)

Ask anyone else where they were on Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight and they'll likely know. That date, that moment, is one of those imprints that lasts a lifetime.

I was in second grade, and I'd just returned from lunch when my teacher said there was a special announcement. We all waited, wondering what could be going on when the PA system cackled to life and our principal delivered the grave news: the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded. All crew were lost. We all sat in stunned silence, trying to wrap our 8-year-old minds around what had just happened.

While the cause of the disaster was long ago pinpointed to an O-ring failure, the emotional impact of that day continues to resonate. In honor of the seven astronauts lost, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, National Geographic is airing a special featuring rarely seen, behind-the scenes footage leading up to the disaster. Titled "Challenger Disaster: The Lost Tapes," the documentary replaces a traditional narrator with radio broadcasts from that day in 1986.

"Without having experts telling you what you’re looking at, you’re almost living through it," director Tom Jennings told Fast Company. "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, New Hampshire. 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."

In an interview with CollectSpace, Jennings said it was important in crafting the story that it didn't appear as if the network was taking advantage of the tragedy's anniversary. "We wanted to make sure that how ever we presented the story, it would not just be about Challenger blowing up," he said. "It would celebrate who [the astronauts] were and what they were about."

In addition to television footage and unaired NASA videos, the special also features video of Christa McAuliffe practicing some of the lessons she planned to teach from space.

"Thirty years later, it's still difficult to watch footage of the Challenger," said Barbara Morgan, who was back-up to Teacher in Space to Christa McAuliffe. "However, the National Geographic Channel special is very compelling and respectful."

"Challenger Disaster: The Lost Tapes" airs on the National Geographic Channel.