30 years later: Challenger disaster offered a glimpse of media world to come

012816blog shuttle challenger explodes
Credit: NASA

Count me among the many muttering this morning that it can’t possibly have been 30 years … 30 years since the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off, killing all seven astronauts on board. Included among the dead, of course, was teacher Christa McAuliffe, who grew up here in Framingham, Mass., and prior to the tragedy had already become an enormously compelling story for the local newspaper at which I worked at the time.

Five years ago on this date I wrote of my experiences as an editor on that day, one of a handful that I can truly say I will never forget.

This morning the Washington Post takes a look back at one piece of its next-day coverage and offers how it gave us a glimpse of a media world to come.

As the space shuttle Challenger roared away from Earth 30 years ago Thursday, only CNN was covering it live for a national audience. For 73 seconds, viewers saw only the orbiter and its rocket boosters, the orange tail beneath, the blue sky above. Then came the upward cascade of smoke and fire, the comets of debris. The narration from NASA droned on for a few more moments (“One minute 15 seconds, velocity 2,900 feet per second…”) — but soon came the muffled cries of alarm, then the low thunder of the explosion.

In the next day’s newspaper, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote about the experience of watching the doomed launch — over and over — as the networks began their rolling coverage. Check out his first line: It perfectly prophesied the 21st century’s obsession with replay and looping of major disasters, and our new rituals of public grief on social media.

Here’s that first line:

We may not be able to believe that something truly terrible has happened anymore unless we see it six or seven times on television.

Today, of course, it’s online and on devices we carry everywhere.

Hard to believe it’s been 30 years.

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