'Challenger: The Final Flight': TV Review

Challenger The Final Fight
Courtesy of Netflix/ Public Domain/NASA
Powerful, comprehensive and full of revealing interviews.
9/16/2020

Netflix's four-part documentary from executive producer J.J. Abrams puts the 1986 Challenger disaster into emotional, infuriating context.

The way I remember it, I didn't watch the Challenger disaster live. My third grade teacher had had a TV wheeled into the classroom the previous day, but when that launch was scrubbed, she decided not to bother the next morning, much to the class' chagrin. It was only at lunchtime that we began to hear rumors about the tragedy that unfolded. Even in the absence of that specific memory, January 28, 1986, is burnt into my brain as it is for most people of my generation. It was our televised loss of innocence, a shared trauma in its own way like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination.

That iconic wheeled-in boxy television from the AV room, a symbol of lecture-free excitement for decades of school children, is one of the opening images of Challenger: The Final Flight, a four-part Netflix documentary series from directors Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge and a production team topped by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper. Though it probably leaves out some things that NASA obsessives would want to know, Challenger: The Final Flight provides an impressive amount of context to the disaster, the lives it claimed and the survivors left behind to pick up the pieces. It's dark and sad and infuriating, but I appreciated its lack of wallowing or frame-by-frame fetishizing.

One thing Challenger: The Final Flight does especially well is position the space shuttle program in a way that younger viewers may not necessarily grasp coming in. It's a reminder of that window in the early '80s where launches went from special, communal experiences shared by the nation to being so run-of-the-mill that NASA had to figure out a strategy to generate enthusiasm and curiosity, starting with sending civilians — in the form of a pair of politicians — into space, and then mounting a nationwide search for the teacher-in-space competition that was won by New Hampshire's Christa McAuliffe. That was one pressure, while at the same time NASA was trying to accelerate its launch schedule across three shuttles — Challenger, Discovery and Columbia — in an attempt to live up to the promises of a revamped program that was supposed to, at some point, pay for its own exorbitant cost. This led to cutting corners and the whole thing resulted in the unfortunate combination of a launch that piqued American interest for the first time in years and an entirely avoidable technical malfunction.

Challenger: The Final Flight represents fairly straight-forward filmmaking. In addition to the ill-fated launch itself, there was a wealth of footage from the teacher-in-space training and general preparations for the launch, as well as its aftermath. The sense of "before" and "after" in the documentary is well and evenly achieved, giving all seven Challenger astronauts the opportunity to have their personalities showcased and making the whole thing more bittersweet than purely tragic. Certain scenes are fleshed out with reenactments that add very little, but probably don't amount to much more than 10 minutes of total footage so I found them less irritating than if they'd been crucial to the storytelling.

More than anything, the documentary is built around a wealth of new interviews.

There are representatives from the so-called Thirty-Five New Guys, the group of astronauts selected in 1978 to populate the space shuttle program, a far more inclusive assortment of pilots, scientists and engineers than the Mercury, Gemini or Apollo project, sending one "first" after another into space.

Then there are the family members and loved ones of the Challenger crew, four of whom were part of that 1978 astronaut class. There are wives, husbands and children represented, as well as Barbara Morgan, McAuliffe's teacher-in-space understudy. Again, this makes the deceased astronauts into real people, not just martyrs to NASA's hurried expediency.

That's where Challenger: The Final Flight may be most intriguing. It's one thing to simply be aware that a failure of the O-ring in the solid rocket boosters was what doomed the Challenger. It's another to see one engineer after another from Morton-Thiokol, the contractor behind the SRBs, candidly go on-camera to discuss what they knew, when they knew it and the steps they took to fix something that everybody knew was a nightmare waiting to happen.

Perhaps even more shocking is the number of NASA officials, with frequently faulted figures like William Lucas and Lawrence Mulloy front and center, willing to go on the record here. Their introspection, or lack thereof, is fascinating. And then there's a strong representation from the Rogers Commission, the Reagan-drafted group entrusted with learning the truth about the failed mission. I have no doubt that there are people whom dedicated space-heads will wish the directors could have gotten, but at a 34-year remove from the catastrophe, this is a good and cogent group.

Other than feeling like even four episodes, with running times of between 42 and 52 minutes, wasn't quite enough, my problems here were mostly quibbles. Like why end the third episode, the one culminating in the launch, with the reaction from Christmas Story star Peter Billingsley rather than one of the widows or children? Yes, he was there at the launch, as a young astronaut program spokesman, but was this really his tragedy? And Billingsley mentioning that if this launch had been successful a kid-in-space would have been next feels like the sort of thing that could benefit from additional NASA corroboration. Ditto the oft-repeated anecdote that there was a briefly considered dream of sending Big Bird into space. Tell me more! Like I said: quibbles.

Generally, Challenger: The Final Flight is an effective time machine, taking me back to a formative moment that I, like so many people, was obsessed with as a child. It's full of emotion and outrage and — lest you fear it's sure to depress you — enough uplift and hope to make it all bearable.

Premieres Wednesday, September 16, on Netflix.