Updated Jan 17, 2014 - 7:03 am
Valley exclusive: Interview with man who discovered lost Challenger photos
History can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places: Treasure maps, relics from the Medieval period, one-of-a-kind first editions or even Rembrandts have been found tucked away in attics or old boxes forgotten in storage units.
The latest piece of history to have been discovered took only hours to spread internationally Tuesday night, and just days before the historic event's 28th anniversary.
Last week, 36-year-old Michael Hindes' grandmother passed away, and while looking through old boxes for photographs to display at her memorial, the West Springfield, Mass. man tells KTAR he found another set of photos he never expected.
"We were just taking turns and I got to the bottom of one box and found in a Ziploc bag these photos, and it looked like Cape Canaveral," he said. "I looked closer and I could see there was a shuttle on the launch pad."
Hindes said he has always had a fascination with space exploration and assumed the photos came from his grandfather, Bill Rendle, who Hindes said used to work as a contracted electrician for NASA.
"I knew my grandfather had worked at NASA and he had seen a lot of the shuttle launches, so I figure that this was a set of pictures that he took from one of the shuttle launches," he said.
But after continuing through the set of pictures, he soon realized they were of no ordinary shuttle launch but of one of the most tragic accidents in the history of manned space travel.
"As I go through them, I'm watching the shuttle go up, and up, and up," he said. "Then I see that iconic cloud."
Hindes said his heart sank as he realized he had stumbled across a set of photos documenting the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986 that claimed the lives of all seven astronauts on board, including elementary school teacher Christa McAuliffe.
"I couldn't believe what I was looking at," Hindes said. "I went through the rest of the set and I was kind of astonished...my breath was taken away."
He said he asked his grandfather about the photos and was told they were taken by his grandfather's friend who had also worked at NASA.
"My grandfather's brother had a team that worked on the Crawler, which is the giant machine that slowly moves the shuttle from the shuttle bay out to the launch pad," he said. "On that crew was a gentleman who they became friends with and it was this gentleman who ended up taking these pictures."
Hindes said the man gave a copy of the set to his grandfather and they were eventually stored and forgotten about.
Finding the photos was only the beginning, though.
Hindes scanned the set of 26 photos and posted them to the so-called front page of the Internet, Reddit.com, under the moniker Americanmustache, and overnight the album reached more than 500,000 views.
Hindes said he did not expect the flood of responses and the attention the photos would gather.
"My inbox is full of comments and it was kind of overwhelming," he said. "Usually when you post something on Reddit...a lot of time the comments don't have much substance -- they're jokes on the Internet -- but the thing about these comments was the vast, vast majority of them were so heartfelt."
The photos seemed to have stirred memories for many about where they were and what they did when the Challenger shuttle disintegrated on live television, Hindes said.
Many comments of Reddit users recalled stories of being kids in school and watching the event on TV in their classroom or live in person.
"I was in kindergarten living in Florida when Challenger went up," Reddit user Bonte wrote. "The teachers took all of the kids out to the playground to watch the launch. When we saw the explosion we didn't know what exactly we saw, it just ‘stopped' in the sky."
Another user, Starfire66, recalled being at home while watching the disaster.
"I can remember being in the kitchen watching on the little Hitachi TV on the counter while I was sitting on a wooden stool. I couldn't believe it was happening. I was glued to the TV all day."
Out of the thousands of responses and stories shared as a result of the photos, Hindes said one correspondence in particular was quite unique: He had received a message from someone claiming to be one of the family members of Christa McAuliffe.
"Basically, they wanted to let me know that knowing that the tragedy that happened is still so engrained in the hearts and minds of people today, that it really meant a lot to this person and their family," he said. "They really wanted to express how moved they were by reading the comments and by knowing that Christa's legacy still lives on."
Hindes said the overwhelming response has even had a positive effect on his grandfather.
"He and his wife, my grandmother, they just celebrated their 70th anniversary a couple months ago and she just passed, so he was really having a tough time," he said. "He was absolutely thrilled; it was probably the best I've heard him sound in a while now. He was so thrilled that the event was being relived in the minds of people, and people were really taking it to heart, because it was such a big event for him, too."
Hindes said he has reached out to NASA to see whether the agency is aware of the photos or has them in their archives, but he said so far he has not heard a response.
NASA has also not yet released a statement or commented on the photos through independent outreach.
Hindes said his grandfather, now in his early 90s, did not stay in contact with the friend who took the photos and could not recall his name after nearly 30 years, but Hindes said he hopes that someone, somewhere will see the photos and recognize them.
"I know that there must be another copy out there, that the actual photographer developed himself, but so far I don't know where that is," he said.
Hindes said he is not exactly sure what he'll do with the photos but that it's been amazing to have discovered a unique piece of history.
"It's so awesome to discover such an amazing piece of history, and especially when you're a part of it," he said. "But then to see what happened afterwards, with the flood of support that came and to see it still so engrained in people, I mean, that was really the best part of the whole thing."