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A Christmas Story Star Peter Billingsley Saw The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster Firsthand

1983's "A Christmas Story" has now become a perennial fixture on cable TV during the holiday season, despite not becoming a seasonal tradition until the mid-1980s. The movie tells the story of young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), who narrates the film as an adult (voice of Jean Shepherd) looking back on the Christmas season when he was nine years old. His father (Darren McGavin) and mother (Melinda Dillon), along with his younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella), memorably rounded out the cast as his loving but tempestuous family. With the announcement of a sequel, "A Christmas Story Christmas," available to stream on HBO Max starting November 17, 2022, Billingsley is once again in the spotlight.

The actor became a child star during a decade of innovation in popular culture. After the film began its pay television and broadcast seasonal rotation, Billingsley starred in "The Dirt Bike Kid" and "Russkies" on the big screen, as well as prominent TV guest starring roles on "Punky Brewster" and "Who's the Boss" (via IMDb). He was also the witness to devastation in the era and saw the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster firsthand from the viewing platform in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 28, 1986 (per Entertainment Weekly). The actor has spoken about his memories of the tragedy.

Peter Billingsley was invited to view the Challenger Space Shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida

Peter Billingsley was interviewed in the 2020 Netflix documentary "Challenger: The Final Flight" (via Popular Science) and revealed that he was invited to the shuttle launch. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced the "Young Astronauts Program," designed to increase American youth's interest in space exploration. Billingsley was recruited as the program's spokesperson, allowing him to be present for the take-off that late-January morning. He recounted his experience seeing the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion by commenting, "We saw a flash. And everyone I think even kind of said, 'Oh, that's the solid rocket boosters...' the actor went on to recall how many in attendance thought the flash was normal before some people in the crowd claimed what was happening was out of the ordinary before an announcement was made that the vehicle had burst apart. 

The actor then revealed how he was on track to travel to space by sharing, "The sense that I might personally be able to go someday [to space] was completely true," Billingsley said. "There was a larger plan when the astronauts landed and Christa was back, we were going to do a national press tour together. And they said the next step for us is going to be a kid in space. And I thought, 'My gosh, that's awesome, man, yes, sign me up.'" The entire crew of Challenger passed away that day.