The fourth and final episode of Netflix’s Challenger: The Final Flight, a JJ Abrams-produced documentary series on the defining space shuttle disaster, opens with anonymous home footage from a yard in Florida on 28 January 1986. A bright pillar of rocket combustion slices through the crisp blue of an unusually cold morning, then splits, forking outward. Like the thousands watching on the ground miles away at the Kennedy Space Center, the shaky cameraman at first can’t understand what he’s seeing – “Is that trouble, or not?” he asks. But as the paths keep winding upwards, divergent, arcing like two bug antennae, it’s apparent that something in the launch – a news event by then semi-routine to Americans, supposedly so safe a non-astronaut was onboard – had gone horribly awry. “They got trouble,” he concludes.
That trouble – a broken helix of smoke raining debris from 46,000ft in the sky – became one of the most searing, indelible and haunting images of the 1980s, the mark of a generationally definitional tragedy watched by millions of Americans, for whom the loss of seven astronauts and faith in the safety of the space travel program constituted a where-were-you-then event. Several thousand people watched the explosion from the ground in Cape Canaveral, Florida; thousands more schoolchildren watched live in their classrooms, millions again in replay footage shown in a loop on news channels. Subsequent studies found that 80% of the American public followed news of the Challenger disaster “very closely”, on par with the level of rapt attention following 9/11. The Challenger disaster was particularly scarring for children, as the widely promoted space shuttle was to carry Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, and the country’s first non-astronaut, to space.
One of the children watching live that day was Steven Leckart, co-director of Netflix’s Challenger with Daniel Junge, then an elementary schooler. Leckart’s teacher turned the television off when, 73 seconds into flight, the shuttle appeared to wrench into pieces. As a kid, Leckart was enamored with the space shuttle. “It was such an iconic thing from my childhood, and I wanted to be an astronaut,” he told the Guardian. “That was the moment for me when that dream died.”
The Challenger disaster put Nasa’s space shuttle program, which ran from 1981 until 2011, on hold for 32 months, and became a national scandal for Nasa, whose decision-making policies, bureaucratic culture, and safety protocols underwent national scrutiny following the tragedy. Memorials for the seven lost astronauts – Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and McAuliffe – enveloped personal grief with national mourning. And the first, most obvious question – what the hell happened? – consumed national media for weeks and launched a congressional investigation known as the Rogers Commission. “The generation before us had the Kennedy assassination … the next generation had 9/11,” Leckart said. “Our generation had Challenger.”
The four-part series recounts the disaster in wide scope, from the ambition imbued in the announcement of the space shuttle program in 1978 – the year a class of 35 astronauts would include, for the first time, three African Americans, six women and one Asian American – through the Willy Wonka-esque open call for the first teacher to go to space, an effort to make space travel seem safer and to drum up enthusiasm that had waned since the triumphant Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. But the series also turns inward, focusing on the families enveloped into the Nasa program – their training, preparation and friendships, with remarkable images from the Florida beach house where the crew and their spouses spent their last nights and interviews with family members. “There have been plenty of other Challenger documentaries and books and scripted versions of the story, but no one ever told the story from the astronauts perspective,” Glen Zipper, the show’s producer, told the Guardian. “No one had ever told the story from the families’ perspective.”
The documentarians were careful, they said, to avoid turning the series into just a forensic account of what went wrong. But the middle episodes of the series do delve into the numerous failures which compounded into disaster that January morning. First and foremost, an “O-ring” seal leakage on one of the rocket boosters, which allowed pressurized, burning gas to spill onto the fuel tank, splitting the craft into the parts. Concerns over the design of the O-rings, which fatally stiffened in cold weather, had been raised on numerous occasions to Nasa by the boosters’ manufacturer, Utah-based Morton Thiokol; former engineer Bob Ebeling’s daughter ends the first episode recalling that her father remarked, weeks before the disaster, that refusal to address the design issues would lead to explosion. The series revisits, in stitched-together interviews, a fateful meeting the night before the launch, in which Morton Thiokol engineers advised Nasa against launching in near-freezing weather.
For unknown reasons – the series suggests pressure inside Nasa to adhere to an ambitious launch schedule and a breakdown of communication between engineers and management – Morton Thiokol reversed course and OKed the launch. The final episode tracks the Rogers Commission, the group including former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride tasked with explaining the disaster to the American public, who ultimately condemned Nasa’s decision-making and the rationalization of design flaws as acceptable flight risks.
Like the Rogers Commission report, Netflix’s Challenger does not ultimately find one locus of blame, or any knowingly bad actors; the tragedy of Challenger was much more mundane, compounding and human. Leckart blamed systemic dysfunction and groupthink: “Nasa is a large bureaucratic organization, where decisions are made at the very top. There’s pressures of budget, there’s pressures of schedule,” he said. “And then there’s all these people, these men and women down the chain, who get stuck and saddled with the results of those decisions. They get put between a rock and a hard place.”
A return to space two and a half years later with redesigned O-rings helped redeem Morton Thiokol and Nasa, but the Challenger’s overt mission to democratize space travel ultimately grounded in 2011, with the retirement of the shuttle. The ambition of commercial space travel instead moved to private enterprise; a SpaceX launch to the International Space Station (ISS) in May, in partnership with Nasa astronauts, marked the first time since 2011 that humans rocketed from US soil – an event, livestreamed online to worldwide viewers online, in direct lineage of Challenger’s mission. “The connection is inextricable,” said Zipper.
Numerous viewers of the SpaceX launch were no doubt too young to remember or witness the Challenger disaster 34 years prior, a memory blank undergirding the mission of Netflix’s series: to educate on the history and wide appeal of American space travel, to provide context beyond a tragic image, to illustrate how the space shuttle program “opened the door for everybody to go to space”, said Leckart. “That’s how the first women went to space, it’s how the first African Americans went to space, the first Asian American. It really opened the door and changed the idea that space would be the purview not just of white male fighter pilots or even the military.”
“We’re at an incredibly divisive moment in our country’s history, and one of the few things that have brought our country and our people together is our imagination for exploration, particularly as it relates to space,” said Zipper. There was the communal elation of the moon landing, the thousands lined up to watch Challenger. “As we move forward into the future,” Zipper said, “and we explore deeper into space, hopefully that will be something that once again can bring us together.”
Challenger: The Final Flight is available on Netflix now