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Netflix’s ‘Challenger: The Final Flight’ Is a Story of Inspiration and Tragedy

The four-part documentary doesn’t reveal much new info about the space shuttle explosion that killed six astronauts and a high school social studies teacher, but it’s revealing nonetheless 

Netflix/Ringer illustration

More than six months after the country caught the world’s worst case of coronavirus and some of its more sensible citizens retreated inside, the United States is still convulsing from the effects of its failed response to the pandemic. When we aren’t preoccupied by case counts and death tolls, our screens are sending us warnings of economic collapse, flashing scenes of repeated police violence, and reminding us that the leaders who are supposed to be bulwarks against chaos have, through a combination of cruelty and complacency, only exacerbated the suffering and deepened the divides. Which makes this a less than optimal time for Netflix to ask the question that its app is posing this week: Can we interest you in a four-part documentary about a devastating national tragedy?

As an alternative to the endless hours of low-stakes escapism that streaming services serve up to temporarily take our troubles away, Challenger: The Final Flight isn’t an easy sell. It’s a three-hour exhumation of a traumatic event that imprinted itself on the psyche of anyone who was watching when it went down. The new Netflix limited series, which debuted on Wednesday, chronicles the lead-up to, causes of, and fallout from the fiery disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger 73 seconds after its launch on January 28, 1986, which resulted in the deaths of its seven-member crew of six astronauts and high school social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe. The destruction of the Challenger was a horror that everyone who was watching live or on taped delay wished they could unsee. Yet The Final Flight makes a strong case for forcing oneself to see it again, even—or, perhaps, especially—at a time when we’re overwhelmed by the disasters unfolding in front of our eyes.

The Final Flight tells the alternately inspiring and dismaying story of the Challenger via archival clips, fresh footage from home movies, and new interviews with former shuttle program personnel and relatives of the fliers lost in the fatal launch. There’s no new information about how and why the catastrophe occurred; unlike some of the sensational subjects that have become fodder for Netflix nonfiction, the Challenger’s destruction is a mostly solved mystery. “Even from the pitching stage, we knew there wasn’t anything that was a huge reveal,” director Daniel Junge said in an interview conducted by Netflix and provided to the press.

Even without a huge reveal, though, the documentary is revealing, especially for those who learned about the Challenger long after the fact or never delved deeply into what went wrong. The documentary—developed by Glen Zipper and Steven Leckart, directed by Leckart and Junge, and executive produced by Zipper, J.J. Abrams, and others—examines why the shuttle program mattered so much to many Americans, and how its importance to the public intensified both the pressure that contributed to the Challenger’s loss and the crisis of confidence that followed.

In the wake of the war in Vietnam and the racial unrest and stagflation of the 1970s, “the country needed something to feel good about,” former astronaut Robert Crippen says in The Final Flight. The sleek space shuttle, a reusable successor to the Apollo program, represented progress, human mastery over orbit, and American ingenuity. “I think this epic flight of Columbia proves once again that the United States is number one,” NASA acting administrator Alan Lovelace declared when Columbia completed the program’s first fully operational mission in April 1981. If the shuttle’s triumphs were the country’s triumphs, then the shuttle’s failures would be blows to national pride.

A 1980s documentary excerpted in The Final Flight notes that the first shuttle’s inaugural launch marked the first time a U.S. space vehicle carried a crew on its maiden flight. Unlike the largely automated spacecraft of today, the shuttle, an incredibly complex machine governed mostly by manual controls, was inoperable apart from its crews. Many members of those crews came from NASA’s Class of 1978, the first post-Apollo group of astronaut recruits. That class, which was inclusive in comparison to the all-male, all-white Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews that preceded it, featured NASA’s first female astronauts, Black astronauts, and Asian American astronaut. STS-51-L, the 25th space shuttle mission and the Challenger’s last, carried two women (McAuliffe and Judith Resnik) and two non-white men (Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka) among its seven passengers.

The Final Flight gives McAuliffe and the rest of the crew their due through clips recorded in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the launch and via sit-downs with spouses, siblings, and colleagues. Some of those interview subjects dab discreetly at their eyes at emotional moments, but their wounds, while always apt to reopen, are somewhat scabbed over after 34 years. Most of the miniseries’ on-camera tears are shed by the engineers who knew there was a problem with the shuttle’s solid rocket booster (SRB) but didn’t do enough to intervene. Those are tears of remorse more than mourning, and the decades haven’t dried them.

The charismatic McAuliffe was the first civilian selected for a space mission as part of the Teacher in Space Project, which was intended to rekindle the public’s fervor for a space program that had started to seem almost mundane. NASA’s plan worked too well: McAuliffe’s quest captivated the public, ensuring that many Americans, including kids in schools with satellite setups, tuned in live for the launch or soon saw the news and gaped at the billowing curlicue that hung hauntingly in the air after the shuttle’s brief flight. “Obviously a major malfunction,” uttered a tightly controlled voice from mission control.

The mission was supposed to prove that space was accessible; “Spaceflight today really seems safe,” McAuliffe says in one old interview. Instead, it exposed NASA’s flaws. Although the three-man crew of Apollo 1 was killed in a cabin fire in a 1967 launch rehearsal test, NASA never lost an astronaut en route to space until the Challenger disaster. After putting the first men on the Moon, salvaging Apollo 13, and conceiving the futuristic shuttle, the agency was overconfident in its engineering know-how and approach to problem-solving and resistant to probabilistic risk analysis.

As The Final Flight makes clear, earlier shuttle launches had yielded evidence of dangerous degradation in the O-ring seals on the SRBs, 150-foot-tall cylinders full of combustible propellant that helped the shuttle overcome gravity in its first two minutes of flight. Some signs suggested that the O-rings were especially susceptible to failure in cold temperatures. The Challenger’s launch was rescheduled or scrubbed several times for various reasons, and the delays allowed time for a cold snap to set in and for temperatures in Florida to fall below freezing.

On a prelaunch conference call, engineers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, which manufactured the motor segments of the SRBs, objected to launching in those cold conditions. But NASA middle managers, prompted by pressure to keep the over-budget and behind-schedule shuttle program moving, browbeat Thiokol executives into giving their assent despite the continued trepidation of the company’s engineers. The launch went ahead, with precisely the result that the engine experts had feared. Months before his death in 2016, former Thiokol engineer Bob Ebeling was still lamenting the sequence of missteps that culminated in Thiokol giving the green light. Although Ebeling died before The Final Flight could capture his words, his daughter and a few of his fellow former engineers recount the concerns expressed at the fateful meetings leading up to the launch, which the documentary reenacts with period décor.

The Final Flight presents a stark contrast to space pablum like Away, the 10-episode series about a future crewed mission to Mars that Netflix released earlier this month. The series, which stars Hilary Swank, is an old-fashioned family drama masquerading as a thriller, which would work better if the relationships and earthbound backstories that eclipse the sci-fi weren’t so melodramatic and trite. It’s watchable, but best enjoyed with a companion who can join you in sputtering about confusing character motivations and scenes that don’t make sense.

Away is fundamentally idealistic, as are so many of the space dramas that free us from the limitations of life on Earth. When things go wrong—and things always go wrong—competent, passionate specialists rally to find a fix. Disaster strikes more because space is dangerous than because people are. In reality, both can kill you, and the latter threat is all the more insidious because it has a friendly face.

In the wake of the Challenger disaster, the agency covered up its culpability and stubbornly resisted pinpointing a cause; in one infamous press conference, a NASA briefer repeatedly referred to an apparent jet of flame in a photo of the streaking shuttle as an “anomalous plume.” Subsequent leaks revealed that NASA had ignored a memo about the O-ring threat and issued a waiver that certified the shuttle safe to fly. In June 1986, the Rogers Commission Report blamed both NASA and Thiokol for not responding appropriately to the known design flaw, and also found fault with NASA for the management structure and decision-making process that allowed the launch to proceed. Some of the parties responsible for what the commission labeled an “accident rooted in history” soon resigned.

Two of those men, former NASA officials Lawrence Mulloy and William Lucas, consented to interviews for The Final Flight. Now in their 80s or 90s, they assert that they made the best decisions they could given what they knew at the time. “I feel I was to blame, but I feel no guilt,” Mulloy states. Lucas says, “I didn’t do anything that I thought was wrong then, and I didn’t do anything that I think was wrong in retrospect,” adding that the loss of seven lives was a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of the perils of spaceflight. “How could they live with themselves for making a decision like that?” wonders June Scobee Rodgers, widow of commander Dick Scobee. Maybe maintaining and persuading themselves of their innocence was the way they went on living long after the crew perished. Neither is visibly upset when discussing the disaster, and their comments make for moments almost as chilling as Robert Durst’s apparent confession in HBO’s The Jinx.

But these men aren’t murderers, or even alleged ones. In a way, their actions (or inactions) are even more disturbing because they weren’t trying to do harm. “There’s no mustache-twirling villain,” Zipper told Netflix. “There’s no person who said, ‘We’re absolutely sure tragedy is inevitable, but launch it anyway.’ Everyone was trying to do their job and attempting to achieve a goal under enormous pressure. And sometimes when there is that kind of ambition coupled with pressure and expectation, the danger somehow gets lost in the mix.”

As The Final Flight makes clear, the footage of the Challenger’s last moments—mercifully replayed no more than necessary—is almost a snuff film, albeit one in which the crime amounts to manslaughter. It’s as agonizing to watch the Challenger ascent stop as it is to see Thích Quang Dúc set himself on fire, the Falling Man plummet from one of the Twin Towers, or George Floyd gasp for air beneath the knee of Derek Chauvin. Like those other indelible images, though, it demands our attention, lest we fail to learn from the mistakes and maliciousness that led to those deaths.

The Final Flight is hazy on certain points. It mentions complaints by some astronauts that civilians like McAuliffe constituted safety risks on spaceflights, but it doesn’t say whether that charge was well founded. Clearly, McAuliffe had nothing to do with NASA neglecting the O-rings, and it’s not clear from the film whether the willingness to welcome civilians on board sprang from the same lack of care that endangered the Challenger. The documentary also elides the difficulties faced by the Thiokol engineers who talked to the Rogers Commission. Most important, it underplays the persistence of systemic problems.

The Final Flight ends on an up note, covering NASA’s triumphant return to space via Discovery’s safe launch in 1988, after a two-plus-year hiatus and an SRB overhaul. “After the redesign, no solid rocket booster ever failed again,” a chyron explains, celebrating the 86 successful shuttle missions launched over the 15 years that followed STS-51-L. The 87th one wasn’t so fortunate: On February 1, 2003, the Columbia broke up on reentry, killing all seven members of its crew. “An investigation revealed a similar failure to fix a well-documented issue,” The Final Flight’s chyron concedes.

Although the specific problem that doomed The Challenger was corrected, another known problem with insulating foam was permitted to persist. A piece of that foam broke off and damaged the Columbia’s heat shield, which led to the shuttle’s demise. Again an investigation turned up organizational issues, and again the shuttle program was paused. NASA learned something from the Challenger, but not enough. And just this week, a congressional report on Boeing’s 737 Max crashes showed that the tradition of institutional failure is still with us.

The country needs something to feel good about at least as urgently in 2020 as it did in the ’70s, and spaceflight still has the capacity to uplift us figuratively as well as physically. This spring, SpaceX sent NASA astronauts to orbit from American soil for the first time since the shuttle was retired. The public-private partnership that enabled that milestone launch made space seem within widespread reach, as McAuliffe’s mission was designed to do. But it didn’t uplift us for long. The achievement of safely putting people in space only made it more galling that back on the planet’s surface, the same country rejected science and avoided taking basic steps to stop the spread of disease.

In one of The Final Flight’s interviews, McAuliffe’s sister remembers speaking to the teacher the night before the launch. McAuliffe admitted to feeling a few butterflies. “I had asked her about the ice and the coldness, and she said that she felt that they would take care of that, that she had full faith in NASA,” the sister says. At the time, that trust seemed reasonable. But as the next day’s destruction demonstrated and the events of 2020 have recently reminded us, placing full faith in any of the people, policies, or systems that are supposed to protect us is a recipe for disillusionment—and, all too often, avoidable deaths.