Photographer who captured horrifying images of Challenger breaking apart after launch has died

The space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off Jan. 28, 1986 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The space shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after lifting off Jan. 28, 1986 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Bruce Weaver/ AP

Associated Press

Published: 10-12-2023 5:53 PM

TITUSVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Bruce Weaver, a Florida-based photographer who captured a definitive image of space shuttle Challenger breaking apart into plumes of smoke and fire after liftoff, has died. He was 77.

A statement released by the North Brevard Funeral Home said Weaver died in his sleep Friday with his wife and family by his side. He was living in Titusville, Florida, along the state’s Space Coast.

Working as a freelance photographer for The Associated Press, Weaver was among hundreds of witnesses on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center who watched Challenger lift off from the launch pad carrying aboard New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts on Jan. 28, 1986.

The space shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds later, killing all seven crew members. Launched on an exceptionally cold morning, Challenger was brought down by eroded O-ring seals in the right booster.

At a time when film was still being used, Weaver had not filled up the 36 frames on his roll by the time the shuttle started breaking apart, while other photographers who had gone through their film needed to rewind the roll before inserting a new roll of film.

Because of that, Weaver was able to capture the horrifying images of Challenger as it disintegrated into forking plumes of smoke and flames.

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Weaver was born in Pittsburgh in 1946 and his family moved to Florida five years later. Besides photography, he had careers in engineering and video production, according to the funeral home.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Deloris, who also was his high school sweetheart, as well as a son and grandson.