The Challenger Disaster, Recorded as a Home Video

Twenty-eight years ago today, the space shuttle exploded over the Atlantic, killing its seven occupants.

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, bound beyond Earth. Just after a minute later, it disintegrated in the sky, splitting in two and sending streams of smoke and debris spiraling back toward the surface.

Most Americans learned of the Challenger disaster through television. Some, however, watched the events unfold in person. One of them was Bob Karman, who—having just finished a Florida vacation with his wife and young daughter—happened to be in the Orlando airport at the time of the launch. Karman used a video camera and a VHS tape he had brought with him to record Challenger's departure. He had no idea that the footage he was filming would capture a national tragedy. 

The tape—an otherwise typical home video, shakily shot and liberal with the zoom and re-surfaced in 2012—reflects a confusion that even professional commentators experienced as they watched the billowing smoke and plummeting debris. Nobody realized, at first, the enormity of what they were seeing. At that airport in Orlando—as seven astronauts "slipped the surly bonds of Earth"—disbelief reigned. Everything seemed normal, until suddenly it didn't. As one person commented, with a voice full of excitement, "They're on their way."  

Via Alex Fitzpatrick

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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