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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.

  • <p>This flying human chain represents prime and backup payload specialists for two upcoming STS missions. The group, representing trainees for STS-61C later this year and STS-51L early next year, shared some 40 parabolas in NASA's KC-135, "Zero-G" aircraft on Nov. 20, 1985. Left to right are Gerard Magilton, RCA backup payload specialist for STS-61C; Sharon Christa McAuliffe, payload specialist/teacher citizen observer for STS-51L; U.S. Representative Bill Nelson (D., Florida), scheduled for 61C; Barbara R. Morgan, backup to McAuliffe; and Robert J. Cenker, RCA payload specialist for 61C.</p>
  • <p>Launch of STS-51L, the Space Shuttle Challenger, at 11:38 a.m. EST on January 28, 1986.</p>
  • <p>A Concord, New Hampshire High School student passes by the American flag outside the school flying at half-staff in Concord, Thursday, Jan. 30, 1986 in mourning for Concord High School teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe who was killed in the explosion of the shuttle Challenger.</p>
  • <p>Motorists enroute to work Wednesday morning passed this sign in memory of the Space Shuttle Challenger which exploded short  after liftoff Tuesday killing the crew of seven.</p>
  • <p>A billboard showing the date of the space shuttle Challenger disaster along with the names of the seven astronauts who lost their lives aboard the shuttle stands on a hill overlooking motorists passing by on Pulaski Highway in Baltimore, Maryland on Jan. 31, 1986.</p>
  • <p>This high angle photo of thousands of Johnson Space Center (JSC) employees, family and friends of the STS-51L crew members was taken from the top of the JSC's project management building prior to memorial services. Note the bleachers that were erected overnight to accommodate the hundreds of news media here to cover the event.</p>
  • <p>STS-51L Challenger wreckage remains and boxes of debris being lowered into abandoned Minuteman Missile Silos at Complex 31 on Cape Canveral Air Force Station on January 29, 1987.</p>
  • <p><strong>President Ronald Reagan</strong> tells a large turnout of Johnson Space Center (JSC) employees and family and friends of the STS-51L crew members about their accomplishments and sacrifices during memorial services held four days following the space shuttle Challenger accident at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).</p>
  • <p>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.</p>
  • <p>View of ice on the 51-L launch complex on January 28, 1986.</p>
  • <p>A KC-135 aircraft provides a brief period of weightlessness as a preview for a teacher, in training to fly onboard a space shuttle for the Teacher-in-Space Project, and her backup. Sharon Christa McAuliffe (center frame), STS-51L prime crew member, and Barbara Morgan, her backup, monitor an experiment involving magnetic effects - one of the tests to be performed on the STS-51L flight. The experiment uses a control box, a square receptacle containing rubber tubing, stainless steel rod, a filter with desiccant, soft iron wire and a magnet.</p>
  • <p><strong>Sharon Christa McAuliffe</strong>, STS-51L payload specialist representing the Teacher-in-Space Project, uses a treadmill exercising device during a training session at the Johnson Space Center in preparation for January's week-long mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger.</p>
  • <p>Main engine exhaust, solid rocket booster plume and an expanding ball of gas from the external tank is visible seconds after the space shuttle Challenger accident on Jan. 28, 1986.</p>
  • <p>Sharon Christa McAuliffe and Barbara R. Morgan, the Teacher-in-Space payload specialist participants, train for the STS-51L mission in the shuttle mission simulator (SMS). They are being briefed about the consoles and controls that operate the SMS in Johnson Space Center's (JSC) Mission Simulation and Training facility.</p>
  • <p>This photograph of the space shuttle Challenger accident Jan. 28, 1986 was taken by a 70mm tracking camera at UCS 15 south of pad 39B, at 11:39:16.061 EST.</p>
  • <p><strong>Christa McAuliffe</strong> and <strong>Barbara Morgan</strong>, Teacher in space primary and backup crew members for Shuttle Mission STS-51L. This mission ended in failure when the Challenger orbiter exploded 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986.</p>
  • <p>The STS-51L crewmembers are: 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.</p>
  • <p>The STS-118 crew poses for an in-space crew portrait on August 17, 2007, prior to joining the Expedition 15 crewmembers for a press conference from the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Front row, from the left, astronauts Alvin Drew and Barbara R. Morgan, both mission specialists, along with astronaut Scott Kelly, commander. Back row, from the left, astronauts Charlie Hobaugh, pilot, along with astronauts Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio and the Canadian Space Agency's Dave Williams, all mission specialist.</p>
  • <p><strong>Astronaut Barbara R. Morgan</strong>, STS-118 mission specialist, smiles for a photo as she floats on the middeck of the Space Shuttle Endeavour.</p>
  • <p>The Space Shuttle Endeavour and its seven-member STS-118 crew head toward Earth-orbit and a scheduled link-up with the International Space Station. Liftoff from Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 39A occurred at 6:36 p.m. (EDT) on Aug. 8, 2007. Onboard are astronauts Scott Kelly, commander; Charlie Hobaugh, pilot; Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Canadian Space Agency's Dave Williams, Barbara R. Morgan and Alvin Drew, all mission specialists.</p>
  • <p><strong>Astronaut Barbara R. Morgan</strong>, mission specialist, before her first shuttle mission.</p>
  • 01 /21

    This flying human chain represents prime and backup payload specialists for two upcoming STS missions. The group, representing trainees for STS-61C later this year and STS-51L early next year, shared some 40 parabolas in NASA's KC-135, "Zero-G" aircraft on Nov. 20, 1985. Left to right are Gerard Magilton, RCA backup payload specialist for STS-61C; Sharon Christa McAuliffe, payload specialist/teacher citizen observer for STS-51L; U.S. Representative Bill Nelson (D., Florida), scheduled for 61C; Barbara R. Morgan, backup to McAuliffe; and Robert J. Cenker, RCA payload specialist for 61C.

  • 02 /21

    Launch of STS-51L, the Space Shuttle Challenger, at 11:38 a.m. EST on January 28, 1986.

  • 03 /21

    A Concord, New Hampshire High School student passes by the American flag outside the school flying at half-staff in Concord, Thursday, Jan. 30, 1986 in mourning for Concord High School teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe who was killed in the explosion of the shuttle Challenger.

  • 04 /21

    Motorists enroute to work Wednesday morning passed this sign in memory of the Space Shuttle Challenger which exploded short after liftoff Tuesday killing the crew of seven.

  • 05 /21

    A billboard showing the date of the space shuttle Challenger disaster along with the names of the seven astronauts who lost their lives aboard the shuttle stands on a hill overlooking motorists passing by on Pulaski Highway in Baltimore, Maryland on Jan. 31, 1986.

  • 06 /21

    This high angle photo of thousands of Johnson Space Center (JSC) employees, family and friends of the STS-51L crew members was taken from the top of the JSC's project management building prior to memorial services. Note the bleachers that were erected overnight to accommodate the hundreds of news media here to cover the event.

  • 07 /21

    STS-51L Challenger wreckage remains and boxes of debris being lowered into abandoned Minuteman Missile Silos at Complex 31 on Cape Canveral Air Force Station on January 29, 1987.

  • 08 /21

    President Ronald Reagan tells a large turnout of Johnson Space Center (JSC) employees and family and friends of the STS-51L crew members about their accomplishments and sacrifices during memorial services held four days following the space shuttle Challenger accident at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

  • 09 /21

    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.

  • 10 /21

    View of ice on the 51-L launch complex on January 28, 1986.

  • 11 /21

    A KC-135 aircraft provides a brief period of weightlessness as a preview for a teacher, in training to fly onboard a space shuttle for the Teacher-in-Space Project, and her backup. Sharon Christa McAuliffe (center frame), STS-51L prime crew member, and Barbara Morgan, her backup, monitor an experiment involving magnetic effects - one of the tests to be performed on the STS-51L flight. The experiment uses a control box, a square receptacle containing rubber tubing, stainless steel rod, a filter with desiccant, soft iron wire and a magnet.

  • 12 /21

    Sharon Christa McAuliffe, STS-51L payload specialist representing the Teacher-in-Space Project, uses a treadmill exercising device during a training session at the Johnson Space Center in preparation for January's week-long mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

  • 13 /21

    Main engine exhaust, solid rocket booster plume and an expanding ball of gas from the external tank is visible seconds after the space shuttle Challenger accident on Jan. 28, 1986.

  • 14 /21

    Sharon Christa McAuliffe and Barbara R. Morgan, the Teacher-in-Space payload specialist participants, train for the STS-51L mission in the shuttle mission simulator (SMS). They are being briefed about the consoles and controls that operate the SMS in Johnson Space Center's (JSC) Mission Simulation and Training facility.

  • 15 /21

    This photograph of the space shuttle Challenger accident Jan. 28, 1986 was taken by a 70mm tracking camera at UCS 15 south of pad 39B, at 11:39:16.061 EST.

  • 16 /21

    Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan, Teacher in space primary and backup crew members for Shuttle Mission STS-51L. This mission ended in failure when the Challenger orbiter exploded 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986.

  • 17 /21

    The STS-51L crewmembers are: 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.

  • 18 /21

    The STS-118 crew poses for an in-space crew portrait on August 17, 2007, prior to joining the Expedition 15 crewmembers for a press conference from the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Front row, from the left, astronauts Alvin Drew and Barbara R. Morgan, both mission specialists, along with astronaut Scott Kelly, commander. Back row, from the left, astronauts Charlie Hobaugh, pilot, along with astronauts Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio and the Canadian Space Agency's Dave Williams, all mission specialist.

  • 19 /21

    Astronaut Barbara R. Morgan, STS-118 mission specialist, smiles for a photo as she floats on the middeck of the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

  • 20 /21

    The Space Shuttle Endeavour and its seven-member STS-118 crew head toward Earth-orbit and a scheduled link-up with the International Space Station. Liftoff from Kennedy Space Center's launch pad 39A occurred at 6:36 p.m. (EDT) on Aug. 8, 2007. Onboard are astronauts Scott Kelly, commander; Charlie Hobaugh, pilot; Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Canadian Space Agency's Dave Williams, Barbara R. Morgan and Alvin Drew, all mission specialists.

  • 21 /21

    Astronaut Barbara R. Morgan, mission specialist, before her first shuttle mission.

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

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.

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.

Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photo: NASA, Otis Imboden; 02 / Photo: NASA; 03 / Photo; AP Photo, Elise Amendola]; 04 / Photo: AP Photo/Joe Skipper; 05 / Photo: AP Photo, Joe Giza; 06 / Photo: NASA; 07 / Photo: NASA; 08 / Photo: NASA; 09 / Photo: NASA; 10 / Photo: NASA; 11 / Photo: NASA; 12 / Photo: NASA, Bill Bower; 13 / Photo: NASA; 14 / Photo: NASA; 15 / Photo: NASA; 16 / Photo: NASA; 17 / Photo: NASA; 18 / Photo: NASA; 19 / Photo: NASA; 20 / Photo: NASA; 21 / Photo: NASA;

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