In the relatively short period that humanity has been able to propel themselves out of the gravitational embrace of planet Earth there have been many ups and some tragic downs. Walking on the moon and international space stations are arguably the pinnacle of our achievements to date, but the path outside our protective global bubble has been built on the back of a few catastrophic failures. In a four-part documentary series, Challenger: The Final Flight explores the story behind the shocking explosion of the 1986 Challenger rocket that killed all seven astronauts on board.
The Challenger tragedy is probably the best-known disaster not only because it was the first accident on such a scale, but also because it was to be the first flight to take a civilian into space. New Hampshire high school teacher, Christa McAulife, was selected from thousands of applicants to be the first non-astronaut in space. The explosion of the craft due to a faulty solid fuel booster sparked an inquiry into practices at NASA that allowed the unthinkable to happen.
There has been much written and broadcast about the Challenger in the decades since the tragedy. What this documentary does differently is not only explore the culture at NASA, and the pressure it was under at the time, but also highlight the lives and personalities of the astronauts whose lives were ended so suddenly. All of the interviewees are friends, families, or those who were directly involved with the mission in some way, from engineers all the way up to senior management. There are no authors of books on Challenger or second-hand accounts here, just primary sources. This helps paint a real picture of the lives of those who stepped into the Challenger on that fateful day.
The series is paced well. After an opening clip of the Challenger climbing into the sky (cutting away before the explosion) it starts by providing context. We learn how all the astronauts came to be on the Challenger and, through family interviews, light is shed on how each of them was feeling. When June Scobee, wife of Challenger pilot Francis ‘Dick’ Scobee, details his applying for NASA on the off chance and his excitement of getting selected, the human cost of such a public disaster is ever more tangible. By the time episode three covers the event itself, including the shocking footage broadcast live on televisions across America (including many schools) it is all too easy to picture those trapped inside.
The series paints a picture of a NASA that is beleaguered by an expensive shuttle programme which it promised to Congress would be profitable, and waning public interest in NASA missions, both of which contributed to NASA’s reluctance to slow or cancel flights despite red flags over mission safety. Later episodes dig into the technical issues that were flagged by Thiokol – manufacturers of the faulty rocket boosters – such as historic and dangerous erosion of the ‘O’ rings that sealed the booster parts together and a correlation with low temperatures when this occurred. Yet a 1985 memo about the danger by engineer Bob Ebeling had to be entitled ‘Help!’ so that it would actually be read.
Whilst for the most part the balance between personal story interviews and technical details are well done, there are moments when digging into the nitty-gritty of the reasons for the disaster can drag. With a series that has rightfully collated as many people actually involved as possible, it can be jarring when there is a switch to ‘re-enactment’ scenes.
A key phone call between Thiokol engineers, management, and NASA (in which NASA essentially rejected calls to ground the imminent launch due to low temperatures) alternates between talking heads to a conference room filled with the backs of actors’ heads. This may add a cinematic visual quality to a moment that any movie would deem a key scene’ but the emotive power is somewhat undermined when real people are suddenly replaced by proxies who don’t speak.
For the majority of the time though, Challenger: The Final Flight highlights the human heartbreak in amongst the bureaucratic failings and subsequent investigations, ultimately ending on a note of positivity as later successful voyages show that our will to progress survives. Songs by artists such as John Denver (“Flying For Me” in 1986: the year of the disaster) or Frank Turner (“Silent Key” as recent as 2019) show that the crew of the Challenger is still on our minds.
President Ronald Reagan famously said that those who lost their lives had ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God’. Whether for those already familiar with the story or those who have never heard of it, Challenger: The Final Flight is a fitting tribute to those aboard who never stopped dreaming of the stars.
Words by Michael Record