Challenger space shuttle disaster amateur video discovered after 24 years

On January 28, 1986 a retired optometrist named Jack Moss captured the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on his Betamax camcorder. He never showed it to anyone, but told his pastor, Marc Wessels, about it shortly before he died from cancer in December. Wessels, who is also the executive director of the Space Exploration Archive, found the tape and added it to the Archive.

It is believed to be the only amateur film in existence of the world's worst space disaster, recorded in an era before mobile phone cameras, when even home camcorders were rare.

... "It took a while to find someone with an old Betamax video player, [said Wessels] then I had to watch four hours of gameshows and sitcoms from the 1980s, but when I found the Challenger film my reaction was that people really have to see this."

Challenger space shuttle disaster amateur video discovered after 24 years


  1. It is really fascinating to see this from another angle, one ‘outside’ the TV commentary.

    I was only a few years old when this happened, but as watching shuttle launches was a family ritual, I distinctly recall seeing this live on TV in our kitchen. The image of those booster rocket trails twisting is still seared into my memory, and watching launches fills me with dread every time.

    I would sign up for a space flight any day, though.

  2. Wow! Such a different human perspective than the footage of all the people actually at the launch (who immediately knew what had occured).

    Just so much more mudane and real here. Amazing.

  3. Man, that still upsets me after all these years. I still remember my elementary school teacher crying; we watched it on the news with the volume low, and I suppose none of us knew what really happened until we got home, but seeing my teacher cry really burned it into my memory.

    1. Weird, i had the same memories, my elementary teacher crying and explaining us what did happened. The weird part is that I was in Spain an my teacher was also spanish, everyone was shocked.

  4. Wow. That’s kind of like rewatching the recordings of the live footage of the events of 9/11. It brings you right back to that visceral raw emotion you felt the first time.

  5. This is, to be sure, a great find. But it’s not at all true to say that “even home camcorders were rare” in 1986. Not in the US, anyway.

    If it had been 1981, or even 1982, then I’d say yes, they were a a bit harder to find in the average household. But by the second half of the ’80s, portable home camcorders were, if not ubiquitous, then at least common enough to be considered mainstream.

    1. Charlie #12

      According to the text at the beginning of that video it was filmed by NASA and acquired from them under a freedom of information request. Not sure that counts as amateur.

      1. My mistake, thought it said acquired by NASA not from. But surely there has got to be a bunch of home movies of the challenger disaster right?

  6. Interesting in the final 30 seconds of this video, there’s a sheet-covered shrub/bush alongside the driveway, common in warm areas (such as Florida, California, and here in Arizona) to prevent plants from freezing during evening frosts. And the freezing of the O-rings was the primary fault of the disaster . . .

  7. “That’s trouble [of] some kind George . . .”

    huh, joins “Obviously a major malfunction” as Understatement Of The Year.

  8. I’m not exactly sure at which point of this video the spacecraft broke up, but it’s quite likely the crew were still alive for the duration of this clip.

    1. If I’m not mistaken, the Rogers Commission Report said that someone was conscious long enough to activate backup oxygen supply, and that it took some number of minutes (two?) for the crew cabin, torn free from the rest of the orbiter, to impact the ocean surface.

  9. What’s the problem with finding working BetaMaxes? I have two working ones: never did trust those new-fangled VHS thingees.

    I only join every other tech-wave in order to save money. So I skipped over VHS straight to DVDs. I’m skipping Blu-Ray and waiting to see what the thing after that is: probably some download protocol.

  10. Re: “but it’s quite likely the crew were still alive for the duration of this clip.”

    That is correct; they died of catastrophic injury when the nosecone struck the ocean.

  11. I used my high school’s camcorder for projects back then, and I had friends who had them. They weren’t uncommon at all.

    Also, I remember scraping ice off the windshield of my ’77 Datsun 810 before school that morning, so it was pretty cold.

    Following the disaster, I promptly wrote a history paper, due that day, comparing it to the Hindenburg disaster, and got an F for tactlessness.

  12. I’m from Kuwait and I was so young at that time .. I don’t remember the whole story but I remember my mother was telling my aunts that there was a teacher among the crew.

    actually, the only two things i remember was the sad look on my mother’s face and her telling my aunts that there was a teacher with them.

  13. I was attending military academy at the time. We were taking time out of Math class to watch the launch on TV. When the disaster happened, my first reaction was that “The Russians did it!” I couldn’t believe my country could make such a mistake. How innocent I was.

  14. I was at NASA for 20 odd shuttle fights up to two launches before and ran the HQ Space Division Pre Flight Readiness Review and the Flight Readiness Review; 2 things folks never mention. All the contractors were swapped out prior to the launch due to lowest bidder renegotiation; And, Reagan put pressure to have his “Teacher in space” PR.

    The old contractors knew to query if the O-rings were working. Shame Reagan and his people were such dicks as to duck responsibility.

  15. Wow, that happened on my birthday, I was in first grade they gathered all us kids into the library to watch the first teacher go into space. Well needless to say everyone returned back to classrooms somber and my class was suppose to sing happy birthday, and all that comes along with celebrating that occasion. with crying teachers and high level of emotion it was something I will always remember i appreciate seeing this footage. One of a kind for sure.

  16. My father told me a story about one of the fellows who headed up the investigation, can’t recall his name, but the story was of a board room full scientists and aides and important people heatedly discussing the possibility of the o-rings becoming brittle if too cold. The one fellow the story was about said “This is ridiculous”, had someone bring him a sample o-ring of the type that was used, and he dunked it in his ice water. He let it sit a bit, took it out, and shattered it on the table.

    ~D. Walker

  17. “one of the fellows”, Richard Feynman one of the greatest minds in human history, winner of the noble prize, theoretical physicist and badass bongo player… c’mon people!

  18. Florida doesn’t have basements! ‘specially not in suburban homes that look that new (for 1986).

    1. The basement was in Indiana not Florida – the home of Dr.Moss was in Corydon, IN. His home in Flordia where this was shot was not where he lived full time, nor did he retire there. He died in Indiana and gave the film to me. It had been in his office basement in Indiana.
      Dr. Marc A. Wessels, Space Exploration Archive Louisville, KY

  19. I find it amusing that people are claiming that home video cameras weren’t rare back then. In ’86 they weren’t yet common enough for series like “America’s funniest home videos” and suchlike, but everyone know someone who had one.

    But nowadays, rather than knowing someone with one, most of us have a few of them ourselves, lying around and not thought of. That’s the level of difference between “uncommon” and “ubiquitous”.

    Anyway. I’m interested in whether anyone’s going to use serious gear to try to recover the full data from that clip, or if it’s going to remain a lousy corrupted rip like that for the rest of its life, occasionally getting played and damaged further.

      1. @Anonymous@#37
        “Please advise how to do so and I will…”

        I was unclear, sorry: rather than “I’m interested in whether anyone’s going to use serious gear to try to recover the full data from that clip” I should have said “I’m interested in whether anyone’s going to use serious gear to try to recover the full data from that TAPE”.

        The bottom section of the recording appeared corrupted, but I’m fairly sure that with the right equipment (I’m thinking a read head that samples far more often than needed to read from the tape to compensate for tape wear, stretching and misalignment), the data could be read off the tape and reconstructed.

        Building something to do that would be an interesting project, but I’m sure there’s got to be gear out there already to do this, made by professional archivists.

  20. I recall shooting video with a Sony Portapak in 1974 of a dancer in a squash court and interviewing people at the Watkins Glen Music Festival also in 1974, and video was rarer then, introduced in 1967. I helped a person for a class at the Media Center in Buffalo, NY which was a publicly funded space for film and video, where Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton and others showed and taught film, film analysis and the nascent video arts were being explored.

    Yesterday I opened up an old VHS tape “Star Trek: The Voyage Home” inside an offer for an Official Medallion “Remember The Seven” which states on the obverse: “The cast and crew of Star Trek wish to dedicate this film to the men and women of the spaceship Challenger, their courageous spirit shall live on in the 23rd century and beyond” -Paramount Pictures 1986

  21. Sorry that would be the “reverse” of the coin, the obverse the principal design of the coin references the film.

  22. Nice sharp video for its age. Depending what version Betamax, that video could easily be superior in quality to the best VHS of the time. As I recall, by 1986 Betamax was already a dying standard, being eclipsed in the market by the lower-quality but more competitive and longer run-time VHS format. A sad incident, especially as it was so preventable.

  23. By comparison camcorders were rare back then. But “rare” is maybe the wrong word. At $1400 or more, most people didn’t have them and they were like 14 pounds! I know, I had one. Very heavy. So they are not rare, but way less common than today. Also the article is only saying it was hard to find a Beta recorder TODAY. And yet most misunderstand this point. It is hard to find a working one today in 2010 for sure. That’s all that was written and people go on and on saying they are not rare, lol.

  24. My Name is Mussa Malupande from Lusaka-Zambia.
    what iremember of that fateful day was that it was about 5.30pm and i had arrived home from work a twenty-five year old at the time, switching into the live radio broadcast on Voice America. Ilisterned right through the launch sequence at the last radio communication with Challanger “Nasa call Challanger go with Throttle up” and the response “Challenger going with throttle up”. The commentry continued for a few seconds and then the commententor suddenly stops. The next moment he comments that that has been an accident, the orbitor has exploded down range. I only saw the footage of the accident on the news later that night. Even I was half a world away I was suddened and to this I still remember that broadcast on VOA.

Comments are closed.