There has always been something vaguely ghoulish about subsequent coverage of the Challenger disaster, considering that we all know how the story ends. But “Challenger: The Final Flight” navigates a delicate path — celebrating the lives of those lost in 1986, and the hubris, politics and pressure to deliver that became the anatomy of a failure.
Airing on Netflix, the four-part documentary series races through a whole lot of history, including efforts to diversify the space program, the half-dozen women who broke through in the astronaut class of 1978, and how NASA seized on the idea of putting a teacher in space as a public-relations stunt because people had become blasé about space-shuttle missions. (There’s even a clip from Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up routine to neatly illustrate the point.)
That teacher, Christa McAuliffe, is the best-remembered name in what was at that point an unprecedentedly diverse crew of seven extraordinary individuals, who died despite the warnings and alarms sounded about the shuttle’s safety and specifically the solid-rocket booster O-rings that caused Challenger to break apart 73 seconds into its launch.
The passage of time hasn’t dimmed the anger or emotion, expressed by not only friends and family, but NASA veterans, some of whom still vividly remember how their concerns went unheeded or ignored, and the arrogance bred by the program’s success.
“How could they live with themselves for making a decision like that?” asks June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of flight commander Francis “Dick” Scobee. (A few of the former officials interviewed are notably unapologetic about their roles.)
Directors Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge (working with a team that includes executive producer J.J. Abrams) fare best when painting with the broadest brush, capturing the romance that surrounded the space program, which became — think “The Right Stuff” — the ultimate
symbol of American know-how, exemplified by its introduction of a reusable spacecraft.
That ingenuity stands in stark contrast to the mistakes that were made, and just as significantly, the crash’s aftermath, when the Reagan administration sought to soft-peddle the conclusions of an investigatory panel so as not to cripple and embarrass NASA.
If there’s a bright note, it’s the expressed belief that NASA learned from this painful chapter, addressing the technical problems as well as adapting its bureaucratic culture.
Even those old enough to recall watching the televised tragedy — an image indelibly etched into memories over the days that followed — will be transported back by some of the old footage and home video, including the looks on the faces of schoolchildren, NASA personnel and the assembled crowd as they realized that plume of smoke meant something had gone terribly wrong.
“The country needed something to feel good about,” astronaut Robert Crippen says, regarding the national mood as it pertained to the space-shuttle program in the 1980s.
To the extent that need is even more acute now than it was then, that single observation explains why the timing for “The Final Flight” feels especially poignant and apt.
“Challenger: The Final Flight” premieres Sept. 16 on Netflix.