Challenger photographer: ‘I knew there was something terribly wrong’
The moment it happened, when the boosters separated from Space Shuttle Challenger, Red Huber knew something was wrong.
Huber, a photographer for the Orlando Sentinel who covered the space program, stood on Astronaut Road in Cape Canaveral, surrounded by out-of-town photographers there to capture images of the first teacher heading into space. At that moment, they oohhhed and ahhhed around him.
"It's still a very, very vivid image in my mind of that moment," said Huber, who is still a photographer with the Sentinel. "When I saw the boosters separate and go in different directions, I knew there was something terribly wrong, but they didn't know that."
Images or video of the Challenger exploding 29 years ago might be what most of us remember. Huber remembers another moment.
Photographing Challenger's liftoff was Huber's first assignment back after taking time off to be with his newborn daughter. The day before, the launch was scrubbed because of the weather. Huber remembers the bitter cold and listening to technicians on a scanner.
"It was like an ice palace out there," he said. "People even said on the radio, there's no way we could try to launch tomorrow, everything's frozen out here."
He was surprised the next day when he learned the launch would go ahead. When the shuttle exploded, everyone was shocked.
"We were in a new technology with the space shuttle, and we had 50 launches before this one that went flawless. So I think it's a monumental moment in modern human space flight. Everybody knows where they were...I think there are certain moments in history, and that sure was one of them."
Huber covered the space program for 30 years, from STS-1 to STS-35. Before the Challenger explosion, "everyone treated this thing as a space truck, because everything worked so perfectly," Huber said. "And then something went wrong."
Every year around this time, Huber remembers Challenger and the Columbia disaster, which happened Feb. 1, 2003. He was there, as well.
That January day 29 years ago, he wasn't just there to see Christa McAuliffe head into space. He was covering his beat.
"You get to know these people personally," he said. "That's the toughest part."
He still shares the images he shot from that day. The Sentinel has done a retrospective and a video with other staff who also covered the story. The images he shot of the shuttle exploding are part of history. But when he thinks of Challenger, he thinks of the people on board.
"I think of the astronauts and their families and what those astronauts sacrificed for human space flight," Huber said. "When we get around this time, I think about the astronauts joking with us in the media, smiling, laughing, looking serious when they were doing something. I think of them. It was so exciting back then."
The moment he remembers, one he photographed, happened before the explosion.
"I picture them walking together in unison as they entered the astronaut van, which I was there for. That's the image that I think about during that time. They were smiling. They were happy. We had the first teacher on board. That was huge."