It was a day that few who witnessed it on TV will ever forget; twenty years ago today the space shuttle Challenger, the pride of NASA’s fleet of three space shuttles, exploded seventy four seconds after its launch killing all seven crew including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, 37, who was picked from among 10,000 entries for a competition to be the first school teacher in space.

I can vividly recall the event. I was just a kid at the time, and I had just gotten in from school and fixed myself a drink before sitting in front of the TV. Newsround, a TV news show directed toward kids, was just starting. The presenter, Roger Finn, seemed unprepared, something unrehearsed was clearly happening then pictures of the space shuttle were shown, something had clearly gone very wrong.

At that point I stood up and ran to the living room door and shouted down the hallways to my Mom who was in the kitchen. “Mom, the space shuttle has blown up!” Seconds later, still drying her hands on a dish cloth, Mom raced into the room and we both stood there transfixed by the pictures that were just being shown of the launch and then the horrific explosion.

This was in the days before 24/7 news stations in the UK, and at that point the only news on TV in the whole country across the 4 channels we had back then, was Newsround. Roger Finn knew it too, and his finely scripted news show for kids was set aside because history was unfolding right before everyone’s eyes.

Pretty soon the other channels had interrupted their scheduled shows with news flashes. “Oh dear, this is terrible.” My Mom said as she sat down on the sofa with a very serious look on her face that reminded me of the look she had when the SAS swooped on the Iranian embassy in London violently ending a siege in which terrorists had taken embassy staff hostage.

They showed the explosion over and over and over again, backward and forward, in normal speed and slow motion. The sound-byte that was forever to be etched into my memory that day was James D. Wetherbee of mission control in Houston saying “Challenger, go with throttle up” and shuttle Commander, Francis R. ‘Dick’ Scobee saying “Roger, go with throttle up.” Moments later Challenger was engulfed in a fireball, the radio crackled and the two rockets tore off and flew aimlessly across a dark blue backdrop of the edge of space.

Roger Finn, at the time a new anchor for the Newsround show, later recalled the event. “The Challenger explosion was not quite my first time in the Newsround chair – it was more like my sixth or so. Even so, you could see from the look on my face that I was plumbing new depths of stark fear. The news broke about fifteen minutes before we were on air, and an important principle was established: if a major news story broke during Children’s programs then Newsround would break it. On this occasion I remember Julia Somerville (the main BBC news presenter) coming into the studio and some sort of ‘conversation’ going on between Children’s [programming] and News. Children’s won and we did the newsflash.”

This was the 25th launch of a space shuttle and was by now no longer a big event as far as news coverage was concerned. Newsround however was due to lead with the space shuttles launch due to the fact that it was the first time a school teacher was going to space, and therefore it had a connection with the target audience of the show. Instead though Newsround found itself breaking terrible news of the disaster first to the children of England before any other news bulletins could prepare their news flashes.

[Video] Brief clip of how cBBC Newsround announced the news
[Video] ABC (US) news from Jan 28th, 1986
[Video] Another view of the explosion from a nearby news van
[Video] 17 years later Columbia breaks up on re-entry Feb 1st 2003
Challenger : Twenty years on
Watch the original BBC news report
Roger Finn recalls the event
children’s BBC – Newsround
Other people’s memories of the day