“It was a totally clear sky…it was ‘Mars to CAVU,’ as we used to say, ‘clear and visibility unlimited.’ It was just a beautiful day,” recounts William Harwood, the longtime Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International. “It was just very cold.”
On Jan. 28, 1986, after crews had finished scrapping off hundreds of giant icicles that had formed the night before, and following two days of scrubbed launches, the 25th flight of the United States Space Shuttle Program was finally cleared to go.
Onboard the shuttle Challenger were astronauts Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Francis Richard Scobee, Michael Smith, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe — a social studies teacher hailing from Concord High School in New Hampshire and set to be the first civilian in space.
Unknown to the crew of the Challenger, it would be the last mission of the spacecraft. Just 73 seconds into the flight, at an altitude of approximately 46,000 feet, it was over.
They were all gone.
Comprising four episodes and a combined three hours, Netflix’s new documentary, “Challenger: The Final Flight,” successfully tackles the anticipation, tragedy, and recovery involving one of the defining events of national mourning between the assassination of J.F.K. and 9/11.
Directed by Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge, and skillfully aided by executive producer J.J. Abrams, “Challenger: The Final Flight” is a welcome addition to an impressive growing canon of space documentaries.
Along For a Fateful Journey
In a period where much of the output from Hollywood is either uninspired or, conversely, overburdened — and frequently ruined — by the desire to shock audiences by being overly brazen or bizarre, in many respects, what Abrams and his team have produced feels akin to their source material: the product of a bygone era.
True, the cinematography benefits from the latest digital technology, and the score feels more nuanced and authentic than something that would have been composed a generation earlier, but everything else about the production feels refreshingly familiar, albeit with a 2020 up-gloss.
“Talking head” interviews, archival footage, and voice-overs laid over slow zooms are balanced judiciously. Reenactment sequences, prone to being one of the worse aspects of bad or schmaltzy documentaries, are, thankfully, limited to shots from the backs of the scene’s participants, often purposefully out-of-focus. For the small percentage of the episodes that re-enactments are used, it’s only to allow the audio being played to match a scene where no cameras existed.
The fate of Challenger is dispensed with early in a dramatic cold-open. The exact moment of the catastrophe, however, isn’t shown until nearly three-quarters of the way through the documentary. Right before the disaster strikes, the documentary hard-cuts to black, and we’re graced with the opening credits, followed shortly thereafter by a “Five Years Earlier” title-card.
In lesser hands, this type of sequencing could have come off as a crass ploy to get viewers to keep watching until the final credits roll, but in the case of “Challenger: The Final Flight,” it works. Since we already know the conclusion, the build-up towards the doom-laden voyage is the most fascinating and affecting part of the journey.
Space For Everyone
Approved by President Richard Nixon in 1972, the Space Shuttle program was pitched to be everything to everyone — a “space truck” that could haul varied payloads, launch satellites, and eventually assist with the planned International Space Station.
As laid out in “Challenger: The Final Flight,” the shuttle came to life at a time American interest in space exploration was on a steady decline. To the dismay of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, by the 1970s, Americans were bored with going to the moon.
Between Vietnam, inflation, and growing racial animosity, America needed something to feel good about — the shuttle gave the country that, if only for a while. Yet after the initial excitement following the launch of the first Shuttle Columbia in 1981, NASA again found itself struggling to make the front page of the newspaper.
The solution to incite the return of crucial public support — needed to influence congressional dollars to keep flowing to NASA at a healthy clip — eventually centered on the promise of making space travel accessible to non-astronauts. Newsman Walter Cronkite and author Tom Wolfe are two names revealed by the documentary to have been contenders for the first civilian in space. Then, on Aug. 27, 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Project, set to culminate in one of the nation’s talented schoolteachers receiving the honor to be NASA’s first non-astronaut.
‘A Loss of Innocence’
What sets “Challenger: The Final Flight” apart from other space documentaries and films is its focus on humans over machines. An insightful look is granted into the control rooms, behind the iconic domed helmets, and into the board rooms where fateful decisions were made.
In interviews with the left-behind loved ones of the Challenger crew and with the still guilt-ridden lower-level engineers, the documentary is at its most bold and unflinching.
June Scobee Rodgers, the surviving spouse of Challenger commander Dick Scobee, relays the heartbreaking actions she took upon hearing the official word that the crew did not survive. Racing home and opening their closet, June reached for Dick’s clothes and hugged them tightly. Then, she found her husband’s briefcase. “I saw his astronomy maps and I saw a Valentine card, ‘To My Wife.’ June says, “January the 28th, he was already prepared to come home and give me a Valentine.”
Sadly, it wasn’t just family members in the stands in Florida that fateful morning. Inspired both by McAuliffe and the new Young Astronauts Program, many school children graced the bleachers as well.
One noteworthy spectator highlighted and interviewed in the documentary is Peter Billingsley, the amiable and bespectacled star of “A Christmas Story.” That day in 1986, Billingsley was in the stands serving as spokesperson for the Young Astronauts Program. “For many of us, it was a loss of innocence,” Billingsley remembers. “A voice came on the loudspeaker and said, ‘the vehicle has exploded,’ …and that was it.”
An Unnecessary Tragedy
It becomes apparent early on in “Challenger: The Final Flight” that human error — far more than mechanical error — is going to be the reason for the calamity to come. While, as we now know, it was the critical failure of flawed, overworked, brittle O-ring seals that led to the demise of Challenger, such a catastrophe was foreseen and even predicted by many.
Interviews with numerous engineers who worked on the Shuttle program as well as their surviving family members relay warning after warning about the O-rings barely holding together the twin Thiokol-designed solid rocket boosters used to provide the thrust needed to blast Challenger into space.
No interview hits as hard as one with former Morton Thiokol engineer Brian Russell, who 34 years ago, faxed the documents to NASA giving the “okay” for launch. “I wish so badly,” he calls with tears in his eyes and his voice trembling, “that I had just said, ‘There’s a dissenting view here.’”
Of the many lessons imparted by “Challenger: The Final Flight,” is the need for brave men and women to speak up in the face of danger or critical negligence — especially when lives are at stake. In reality, however, it’s hard to blame the young, junior employees at Morton Thiokol or NASA, whose future and livelihoods were at risk, for not pushing back even harder against their superiors and those in power who moved ahead with the launch despite numerous concerns and warnings.
A certain parallel to the Chernobyl incident hangs over the experience as well, with willful blindness, foreboding pressure from government deadlines, and ex post facto justification pervading the higher echelons of the decision-makers involved in the shuttle program. Indeed, many viewers will come away thinking the documentary was too soft on the leadership within NASA and the solid rocket booster programs.
Of those most potentially culpable for the Challenger disaster, former director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center William Lucas and former manager of the space shuttle SRB program Lawrence Mulloy come off the worst, but “Challenger: The Final Flight” stops short of taking a definitive line on who and where the blame should truly land for the tragedy. The phrase “manslaughter” is briefly mentioned, but not developed further. Whether this safe, reticent approach of the documentary is a sign of weighted restraint or timidity may be one of the few divisive aspects of the production.
Ultimately, “Challenger: The Final Fight” is an incredibly pro-life documentary; not in the sense of being anti-abortion, but in the authentic and moving ways it pays tribute to the seven lives that were lost that cold January day 34 years ago. At the end of the miniseries, few viewers will be lamenting the $3.2 billion cost of the disaster — they’ll be left saddened, sore, and shaking their heads at the wholly unnecessary deaths of the brave Americans who boarded the final flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger.