The 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, which was nationally televised as much of the country bore witness, is one of the starkest examples in American history of hope instantly transforming into grief. The much-hyped mission was meant to stand as a marker of progress both scientific and social. As part of an established NASA effort to make space travel seem accessible to everyone, the Challenger’s seven-person crew included a Black man, a Japanese-American man, and two women, one of whom, teacher Christa McAuliffe, would have been the first non-astronaut to travel into space. Would have been, if a rocket booster on the Challenger hadn’t burst into flames on January 28, 1986, about a minute into its journey and caused the shuttle to break apart.
In the new four-episode Netflix docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight, debuting Wednesday, directors Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge don’t uncover startling new information about the lead-up to or aftermath of this tragic event. They do what good documentarians do: contextualize a major moment in a way that clarifies it for people who weren’t alive when it happened and makes it more vivid for those who were.
Piecing together archival material, old news footage, and interviews with relatives of the Challenger crew as well as engineers and others involved with the space shuttle mission, Challenger: The Final Flight unflinchingly captures the simultaneously ambitious and arrogant culture at NASA during the 1970s and ’80s as well as the sense of national pride and profound loss surrounding the Challenger’s mission.
The docuseries, executive-produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper (Netflix’s Dogs), opens with a teacher wheeling a cathode-ray-tube TV into a classroom and turning it on so her students can watch the Challenger launch. That segues into news clips from that January day and the Challenger mission in general, including the introduction to the press of the crew members: McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, and Greg Jarvis. We see the moments leading up to the accident and some of the immediate shock and despair expressed afterward by observers at the Kennedy Space Center. But the actual explosion is withheld until the end of the third episode in the series. Not seeing it until then, after the documentary has explained all the effort, optimism, and worry that led to those plumes of smoke in the sky, makes it all the more devastating.
Placing the opening moments in a hypothetical 1986 classroom evokes McAuliffe’s role as the relatable teacher tasked with sharing instructions from space. But it also is a reminder of what a sobering touchstone moment the Challenger explosion was for many young Generation Xers, who watched it happen live in classrooms around the country. “For many of us, it was a loss of innocence,” says Peter Billingsley, the star of A Christmas Story, who served as the spokesperson for the Young Astronauts Program and wasn’t in class on that terrible morning. He, along with other children, were in the stands at Cape Canaveral.
As you might expect, there are plenty of heartbreaking moments in Challenger: The Final Flight, but Leckart and Junge refrain from overdramatizing things or excessively deifying the lost astronauts. All seven of those Americans, who have since had numerous schools and landmarks named in their honor, are depicted here as determined, special individuals but also human beings who were grounded despite their desire to fly thousands and thousands of miles above Earth. NASA wanted its space shuttle program to make space travel seem possible for anyone, and Challenger: The Final Flight succeeds in making it seem like it could have been you, me, or anyone we knew inside that space shuttle when it ignited.
The series also devotes a lot of time to reminding us that the biggest tragedy in all this is that the explosion was preventable. At the end of the first episode, Leslie Serna talks about how her father, Bob Ebeling, an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the Utah company that manufactured rocket boosters for NASA, famously predicted that the Challenger would explode. In a particularly tense sequence in episode three, a prelaunch conference call between NASA officials and leaders at Morton Thiokol is revisited and described by some of the men who participated. Every engineer on the Morton Thiokol team agreed that the O-rings in the rocket boosters might not withstand the unusually cold temperatures Florida was experiencing in that final week of January. The dissenters were overruled, however, by managers at the Utah company and higher-ups at NASA who were anxious to get the shuttle off the ground after having to postpone its launch twice.
Engineers like Brian Russell, who worked at Morton Thiokol, have clearly carried the weight of that decision with them ever since. “I wish so badly,” says Russell, his voice catching as he remembers faxing the documents to NASA signing off on the launch, “that I had just said, ‘There’s a dissenting view here.’” Some former NASA leaders, however, don’t seem burdened at all. William Lucas, the head of NASA who retired not long after the Challenger disaster, says he didn’t do anything wrong and, based on what he knew at the time, would make the same decision to launch again. Lawrence Mulloy, former manager of the space shuttle solid-rocket-booster program, puts it this way: “I feel I was to blame but I felt no guilt.” As good as Challenger: The Final Flight is as a docuseries, there are moments that shout out to be adapted into a scripted limited series in the mode of Chernobyl. There’s a lot more story that could be told than what this single season covers in four episodes.
While the Challenger explosion may feel like a distant dot on the American timeline from where we are now, there are some parallels to the present. Space exploration, particularly in our popular culture, is still frequently held up as the epitome of American achievement. (See, among other examples, the recent Netflix series Away.) The desire to make our institutions more inclusive, as NASA attempted back then, remains a major societal focus now, and Challenger: The Final Flight reminds us why. While NASA was clearly interested in expanding its astronaut pool beyond the usual sphere of white men, the space shuttle Discovery, the 1988 endeavor that marked the first successful shuttle launch post-Challenger, consisted of an all-white and male crew. The series shows us this but doesn’t comment on it. It would have been instructive to understand more fully how the efforts in the 1970s and ’80s either did or didn’t lead to more diversity.
In other words, Challenger: The Final Flight provides evidence that many of the problems that vexed us back then continue to vex us now. It also serves as a compelling reminder that life, and our national mood, has always been fragile. Even on a January morning when America may have felt, to some, like it was at its best, the worst could still occur.