The Challenger Explosion On January 28, 1986 Was A Day History Unfolded On Live TV

The explosion on January 28, 1986, of the space shuttle Challenger was a “where were you when?” moment.

That day, when millions of people watched the Challenger explode 73 seconds after takeoff on live TV, became part of American history, as embedded in the nation’s heart as the Kennedy assassination before and 9/11 after.

The Challenger explosion was a key moment in history for many reasons, but it was most memorable because the disaster unfolded on live TV before broadcast journalism even knew how to cover it. Today, the 24-hour news cycle is an expert at covering such events — mass shootings, acts of terror, natural disasters.

“This is one of the first big ones,” Stacey Schulman, a media analyst with Katz Television Group, told CBS News.

January 28, 1986, ended up becoming the most iconic live breaking news event in TV history.

The shuttle Challenger garnered so much attention because of who was on board — a New Hampshire school teacher named Christa McAuliffe, who was going to be the first ordinary civilian in space.

“Thirty years just seems like yesterday,” Barbara Morgan, who was McAuliffe’s backup, told of January 28, 1986. “These people are still with me all the time, every day. Christa was just a wonderful teacher, a wonderful human being and a wonderful representative of our profession, and that made it so that it got turned around. That’s something that I’m really, really grateful for, and proud of.”

NASA had arranged for the mission to be broadcast by satellite so Christa’s students and children across the nation could watch, CNN noted. So when the Challenger made history by exploding in midair as millions of people, many of them young kids, watched on live TV, Schulman said it was a “very defining moment.”

One of those who watched the explosion on January 28, 1986, was Clarence Searles. He was in second grade and wanted to be an astronaut, and distinctly remembers watching the launch with his classmates. “Everything stopped” when the Challenger exploded.

Second-grade Florida teacher Kathryn Stuart said “we were all trying to make sense of it. Her class watched the launch from the school’s playground. They took us off the playground as quickly as they could, and we went back to class.”

McAuliffe and six others were killed that day, making history in a split second: commander Francis “Dick” Scobee; pilot Mike Smith; mission specialists Judith Resnik, Ron McNair, and Ellison Onizuka; and payload specialists McAuliffe and Greg Jarvis.

An investigation revealed that shortly after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986, the Challenger’s external fuel tank failed. What happened next looked like an explosion but was actually the shuttle breaking apart and then plummeting 46,000 feet into the Atlantic. The disaster had long-lasting consequences at NASA.

But that fateful day in history didn’t deter space exploration, nor did February 1, 2003, when the orbiter Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry in the Earth’s atmosphere, killing the seven astronauts on board.

The night of January 28, 1986, hours after the Challenger explosion, President Ronald Reagan talked to the nation and paid special attention to the nation’s children, who watched the deaths of seven people live on TV that morning.

“I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery.”

NASA has moved from that painful history to do great things. Since January 28, 1986, the agency has made history time and time again: it has landed multiple rovers on Mars, astronauts have lived on the International Space Station for 14 years, New Horizons has introduced Pluto the world. And NASA has even bigger plans — working on developing private spacecraft to ISS, getting human beings to Mars, and building a huge rocket.

As Reagan said, “[T]he future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”

[Photo by Steve Helber/AP]