Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Peter Billingsley discusses the Challenger disaster on "Today" in 1986

Real People alumnus Peter Billingsley was a spokesman for the Young Astronauts Program in the 1980s, and in that capacity he attended the launch of and witnessed the tragic explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. I did not add this to the playlist for our Real People episode, and this is a big departure from the often-lighthearted presentation we give here, but the disaster is a key television memory for everyone who grew up in the era. The fact that a teacher was on board made this even more awful, if that was possible, and it remains one of the definining "Where were you?" mments of a generation.

This is a remarkable clip. Watch this footage of Jane Pauley interviewing Billingsley on Today the next day following the explosion:

Billingsley is so poised that you almost don't question the tastefulness of interviewing a kid--even a seasoned pro used to being on camera--about one of the most traumatic events of the decade--one he saw in person, no less. But I do. I don't really think it was a great idea, but full credit to Billingsley for pulling this off.

Notice how at the end he deflects an opportunity to puff up his own role in the YAP, staying "on message" and emphasizing the larger aspects of his role and avoiding seeming at all immodest. It's kind of a thankless spot for Jane Pauley, too, but I think the segment ends up being as tasteful as it could have been, all things considered.

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