Space Shuttle Challenger: Iconic images and the moment of death

Thirty years ago today, on January 28, 1986, 73 seconds after takeoff, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart due to the failure of the O-ring joints on the solid rocket booster, leading to the death of all seven astronauts aboard. I, like millions of other school children, watched the horror unfold on live TV.

This event was a national tragedy, especially given the previous success of the shuttle program and the fact that Christa McAuliffe, the first participant in the Teacher in Space Project, was aboard. Often citied as one of his finest speeches, then President Reagan addressed the nation, closing with a quote from poet John Magee:

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”


“This photograph of the Space Shuttle Challenger breaking apart 73 seconds after lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center launch pad became the iconic image of a national tragedy.” Photo by Bruce Weaver, AP.

The above image of the shuttle breaking apart and the trailing smoke plumes, taken by Bruce Weaver of the AP, has become the iconic image of the event, depicting the moment of death for these seven astronauts. But unlike most iconic images of the moment of death, the image is not necessarily graphic nor does the image provide visible evidence of death. Rather, it is what Barbie Zelizer calls an image of “presumed death.” Regarding the image, she writes, “though it showed no people or bodies, no ground or impact, it remained simultaneously otherworldly and all-authoritative.”

This photo is one of the rare iconic images that does not show human faces or human bodies. But, rather, it represents the ultimate shared human experience, that of death. An image of an object, for example, is not likely to become iconic without a direct connection to the human experience. In the Challenger image, the object (smoke plume) is emblematic of death as a shared human experience.

Regarding iconic image formation, one of the arguments I am developing relates to imagery of the moment of death. Visual depictions of the moment of death, whether graphic (as in the case of Eddie Adams’ Saigon execution photo) or presumed (as in the case of the Challenger smoke plume photo) force us to confront human mortality and the inevitable questions that we all face about our own unknown, yet unavoidable, moment of death. In these iconic images of death, that moment is known for these humans. And as a human audience, it is something we cannot easily turn away from or forget seeing, thus contributing to iconic image formation.


The crew of the space shuttle Challenger flight 51-L, leave their quarters for the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. From foreground are commander Francis Scobee, Mission Specialist Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, teacher Christa McAuliffe and pilot Michael Smith. Photo by Steve Helber, AP.


The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. From left: Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair and Judith Resnik. Photo by NASA.

Header image credit: Bruce Weaver, AP


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