Former NASA Manager Sues Discovery Over 'Challenger Disaster'

Judson Lovingood demands $14 million in damages over the way he was treated in the Science Channel's scripted TV movie.
Science Channel
"Challenger Disaster"

A former deputy manager in NASA's shuttle project office is claiming that the Science Channel's Challenger Disaster doesn't have its facts straight in advancing knowledge of the famous 1986 mission that resulted in the loss of seven crewmembers.

Challenger Disaster premiered last November in the U.S. and starred William Hurt as Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman, who became part of a Ronald Reagan-commissioned investigation of what went wrong. The telefilm became one of the most highly-rated programs in Science Channel's history.

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But in a defamation lawsuit filed last week in an Alabama circuit court, Judson Lovingood takes issue with the film that opens by saying, "This is a true story."

According to the complaint, "the movie/film ignores or manipulates the rules of evidence and fact while messing with them to manufacture and create false facts in a deliberate effort to be more entertaining and dramatic at the peril of truth."

Specifically, the Challenger Disaster is accused of failing to make a "very significant distinction" among probability estimates for failure of separate shuttle components like solid rocket boosters and liquid rocket engines and probability estimates for total mission failure, defined by the plaintiff as a failure of all components with loss of crew life.

And how does that relate to Lovingood?

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In the film's dramatic scene where NASA representatives are giving testimony to the Presidential Commission, Feynman (Hurt) asks, "Can you remind me what NASA calculates the probability of shuttle failure to be? Failure meaning the loss of vehicle and the death of the entire crew?"

Someone then interjects, "Dr. Lovingood?"

Another character -- which the plaintiff believes to be a depiction of himself -- responds that it was 1 in 100,000.

"That's not scientific calculations," Feynman (Hurt) retorts. "That's a wish."

The scientist played by Hurt then cites NASA's own engineers as saying the probability of success is 99.4%, which he translates as a probability of failure of 1 in 200.

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"The clear statement and depiction was that Lovingood had lied about the probability of total failure being 1 in 100,000 when NASA's own engineers had said it was 1 in 200," says the lawsuit. "This movie scene never took place in real life at any hearing. Plaintiff was never asked to give any testimony as depicted and he did not give testimony to the question shown in the movie in this made-up scene. No NASA engineer had ever written on a piece of paper, stated or testified that NASA had actually determined that the probability of total shuttle failure 'with loss of vehicle and the death of the entire crew' was 1 in 200."

The lawsuit goes on to say that what Lovingood was really telling Feynman (in real life) was that the probability assessment was related to engine failure and that there were safety redundancies to compensate for such a specific failure.

This might be a matter of math, but Lovingood believes that the movie's alleged screw-up resulted in him appearing to be "a liar, a cover-up artist and an uninformed manager who fails to communicate with his engineers."

Now, Lovingood, represented by attorney Stephen Heninger, is hoping that the odds in court stack up in his favor. He is demanding $7 million in compensatory damages and another $7 million in punitive damages over a film that allegedly "links Plaintiff as contributing to the seven deaths of the tragically heroic Challenger crew."

Here's the full complaint.

Discovery declined to comment.

Twitter: @eriqgardner