Pick of the Week: Challenger - The Final Flight
J.J. Abrams' limited series examines the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy in which a U.S. spacecraft exploded in plain sight of earth, killing all seven of its crew-members, which included a high school teacher. The series is buoyed by its genuine empathy for its subjects and balanced and fair depiction of the facts - an emotional, gripping and humbling watch.
Season 3 of Glow - Jenji Kohan’s 80’s pop inspired series about a women’s wrestling show - opens with all the characters awake bright and early on a cold cold January morning in Vegas, eyes glued to their hotel room TV sets. Ruth and Debbie - dressed as their wrestling personas “Zoya the Destroya” and the all-American “Liberty Bell” are doing a plug in with a local news channel, watching the launch of the US Challenger Mission into space, live on TV.
There is anticipation and excitement in the air, tinged with a sense of familiarity, as characters comment on their favourite aspects of a shuttle launch. It is the 80’s after all, the US Space Space Shuttle program is at its peak and NASA, a household acronym. Or perhaps, it is to do with the fact that on that particular mission, its tenth, the STS-51-L was going to be carrying Christa McAuliffe, an American high school teacher, up into space, along with its seven astronauts - space truly was for everyone in 1986. Almost nobody expected the tragedy that would unfold only 73 seconds later, as the Challenger exploded, high up in the sky, in plain view of millions watching, utterly shocked, all over the world.
Challenger: The Final Flight, Netflix’s new limited series peels back the layers on this doomed mission to reveal not just the sheer audacity of human endeavour that propelled the program, but revisits the politics, performance pressure and organisational hubris which caused the final flight to end in disaster, costing seven lives. Incorporating never-before-seen interviews with the families of the astronauts, employees and engineers who were directly involved, and rare archival material, the series also offers an in-depth look at one of the most diverse crews NASA has ever assembled, which included the bright young Judy Resnik and man of steely determination, Ronald McNair, only the second woman and African American man to reach space, as well as the good-natured Ellison Onizuka, who would have been the first-ever Asian American and person of Japanese descent to travel into space.
In 1969, after the success of the Apollo missions which put Neil Armstrong on the moon, NASA envisioned a system of reusable manned space vehicles and proposed plans for a Space Transportation System (STS), the purpose of which was twofold: to reduce the cost of spaceflight by creating reusable spacecrafts instead of launching capsules on expendable rockets, and as infrastructure to support ambitious follow-on programs including permanent orbiting space stations around the Earth and the Moon (some of which were crucial in later years for setting up the vast network of internet communications we enjoy today). The Space Shuttle Program was the primary one from this plan that was approved by Congress.
Divided into four parts, the opening episode paints a vibrant, even romantic picture of the idealism and aspirations that birthed the program. It introduces viewers to NASA as a highly confident organisation, harbouring some of the most intelligent minds in the country. It is a progressive, pluralistic institution, heroes to the villain that the Vietnam war had turned into, in the public eye. The astronauts and crew members are depicted as exceptional, remarkably intelligent and dedicated people with touching archival footage expertly immersing you into an environment which comes across as genuinely constructive, collaborative and wholesome.
Be warned: it is extremely difficult not to get swept up in the optimism and hope that the program represented to the American public at the time. Which is why, the actual explosion, detailed out in Episode 3, can come as devastating. Adopting an appropriately sombre but investigative tone, it documents what a ‘national tragedy’ looks, sounds and feels like. From interviewing now grown up school children who had watched in awe from their classrooms, to showcasing news bulletins from around the world covering the explosion, the creative direction leaves no stone unturned in trying to include us all - American or not - in this most heartbreaking spectacle of human error. Especially moving are the reactions of the engineers who had worked on the problematic parts of the shuttle (but were systematically ignored by their superiors) - the ‘whistleblowers’ - some of whom have very evidently lived with the guilt all their lives. It is that moment in the series when you are brought to complete stillness, simply to wonder at the true cost of human ingenuity and the delicate balance between confidence and hubris which is essential to our existence - both on and off this planet.
Refreshingly, the series ends on a positive note, going beyond the accident and the Presidential Committee investigation that followed, to showcase how NASA and Morton - Thiokol, the third party company that had been hired to manufacture the problematic parts, would go on to take a two-and-a-half year hiatus, restructure and redesign the part, and successfully put the program back in space with the Discovery orbiter in 1988.
Neither incriminatory nor forgiving, executive producer J.J. Abrams’ documentation of the Challenger tragedy is in every way as moving and reflective an account, as you would expect from a filmmaker of his calibre. It is a humbling experience, one that not only celebrates the lives that were lost on the spacecraft, but which also shows the indomitable spirit of humanity to pick itself back up. At a time when the failures of our self-constructed socio-economic-political order are more than obvious, it is some relief to discover an episode of our history in which accountability was not totally eschewed, and where human determination and commitment to progress did eventually prevail over the political pressures and media manipulation that still continue to plague us today.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Jeffrey Jacob Abrams was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles, the son of TV producer parents. He studied film at Sarah Lawrence College and is known for a number of films including Mission Impossible III, Cloverfield, Star Trek and the Emmy winning TV series Lost. His most recent films include Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens as well as Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.