I still remember sitting in the formal living room of my fraternity house watching the Challenger launch back in 1986 (hard to believe it has been 26 years now). If I had the chance to go to watch it live, I would have done it in a heartbeat – my family was vacationing in Florida a few years back, and the schedule was supposed to have us there for a launch, but it was pushed back. We still got to see the shuttle being moved towards the launch site, and that was thrilling to behold.
But of course Challenger ended up being chilling rather than thrilling, and the problems that caused the failure from both a technical and administrative angle have been the source of considerable study in the years since.
Now over at the Huffington Post there is some recently discovered home video described as “perhaps the only amateur recording of the event on film”. The source of the video? Jeffrey Ault, who was 19 years old, a huge NASA fan, and was visiting from southern California at the time. I was not even a year older than Ault at the time, and I would have jumped at the chance to be watching the launch live rather than on TV in between classes with piles of snow outside. I could easily picture his excitement – something immediately palpable watching the video below.
“The excitement leading up to the launch was something I had never felt before,” Ault told The Huffington Post. “It was just great.”
But that excitement turned to shock and sadness just 73 seconds after launch, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board and putting shuttle missions on hold for nearly three years.
Ault, who was 19 at the time and visiting from southern California, attended the launch with his parents, Bernice and Robert, and his friend Bill Graber. He filmed the event with his Chinon Super 8 film camera while Graber snapped photos.
Like many home movies, the film sat untouched in a box in Ault’s house for decades. Until last week, it had been 26 years since he had seen the film, which The Huffington Post licensed from Ault.
The thing that really struck me was the seconds after the infamous explosion right after throttle-up as the boosters shot in opposite directions and made a ‘V’, you could hear people remarking on the beauty of the sight … obviously not knowing what was going on at the time.
And as Ault remarks now, “unfortunately it became one of those long-lasting memories for all the wrong reasons.”
A final thought … the early remark I highlighted was “perhaps the only amateur recording of the event on film”. Can you IMAGINE that being true of a similar event now? Ault took his video on an 8mm camera on to a roll of film which would then require processing and so on. Today at a similar event, perhaps 50% of the people in attendance would have been capturing it on a digital video camera of some sort (most likely on their mobile phones), and the other 50% would have been taking digital camera pictures and/or Tweeting the event.