J.J. Abrams’ Challenger: The Final Flight somehow tells a story of American exceptionalism, greed, and hope all at the same time. Through four episodes, this documentary mini-series chronicles the story of the space shuttle Challenger and what led to its tragic explosion in 1986.
The miniseries begins with footage of the Challenger’s explosion, followed by the stunned faces of the crowd and NASA employees alike.
Then it jumps back: using news footage and photos from the time combined with interviews with involved people in the present, Challenger tells of NASA’s attempts at diversifying space flight after the initial victory of landing a white man on the moon. What’s next? Female and non-white astronauts. NASA also wanted to get America excited about space flight again, which is why the 1986 Challenger included a lay person – a teacher – among its crew.
Spouses, siblings, and children tell us about their beloved crew members, weaving in and out of NASA’s story. Solid rocket boosters had been a problem for years, but NASA was starting to become arrogant and dismissive of the problem. NASA was also trying to live up to its promise of developing a space program that would be low-cost and high-efficiency, putting pressure on engineers at its partnered company, Thiokol, to launch shuttles as often as possible.
In particular, there was a risk with something called an O-ring. There wasn’t significant data yet, but Thiokol’s engineers knew that the O-ring was not properly designed and that its risk increased in cold temperatures. When it came time for the Challenger to launch, the flight was delayed a few times and pressure was mounting to get it up as quickly as possible. The intended launch day was unseasonably cold, and Thiokol’s engineers strongly dissented the decision to launch.
However, pressure was applied and the decision was eventually made. The shuttle launched. And it exploded. By this time, as viewers, we’ve already seen the explosion but now we know the people involved and the story of clear corporate greed behind it. The second time, the footage is far more painful to see.
We hear from the families about the explosion’s direct aftermath. Then, we learn the story of Reagan’s task force, which was instructed to find out what happened but not to embarrass NASA. The final episode explores the “bureaucratic jiu jitsu” involved in the task force and in the scientists who finally brought out the truth.
The series ends with NASA accepting responsibility, redesigning – with Thiokol in charge this time – and successfully launching the Discovery in 1988… this time, back to a crew of entirely white men. Oh, and the people who made the final Challenger decisions still aren’t sorry. It’s an ending of hope and also of warning; a similar situation happened again in 2003 with the Columbia. Science, arrogance, and capitalism do not mix well.
The best thing about Challenger: The Final Flight is that it does not make an argument. It lets the happiness, hope, and pride of the Challenger–before and after the disaster–be truly positive. And it lets the story’s bad actors and bad systems be truly slimy. It does not choose one over the other. Both exist; that’s the country that we live in.
Directors Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge’s choice not to have a narrator makes sense, given the story’s commitment to letting each person speak for themselves. At its best, Challenger uses ’70s and ’80s video footage, and sometimes well-chosen music of the era. These choices bring the viewer in to the action, as it was portrayed at the time, and as closely as possible to how it probably felt.
At times, the series uses acted footage to accompany interviewees’ stories. This is especially present in parts of the story that were not filmed at the time, namely closed-door decision-making pre-launch and closed-door task force exploration post-disaster. Of course there may be no real footage, but directors Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge’s choice to film walking shoes, blurry faces, and other shots intended to show action without showing the actual people involved, are not visually compelling.
The story is gripping, and the narrative’s jumps across time, and between humanity and business, work well. At times the information becomes repetitive – perhaps this could have been three episodes rather than four – but generally it’s an interesting, informative, and emotional watch.
The Bottom Line
Challenger: The Final Flight is visually and emotionally gripping, providing a thorough telling of the Challenger’s story that shies away from neither the good nor the bad.