In the early days of NASA, the public and the press spent a lot of time micro-analyzing the organization’s failures. Why did our rockets keep blowing up on the launch pad? Why did the Soviet Union keep beating us to major space-exploration milestones? And so on and so on, year after year.
Then NASA went on a hot streak. The Mercury program. Gemini. Apollo. The space shuttles. For about 25 years, most American space flights went off without a hitch, and even the few that went awry mostly ended with safe landings and lessons learned. The processes ran so smoothly that the citizenry largely stopped paying attention to what their tax dollars were paying for—except to complain occasionally that our money might be better spent here on Earth. And then—as Netflix’s new four-part docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight covers in engrossing detail—one of NASA’s spacecrafts exploded, devastating and unnerving a nation that hadn’t seen bad news like this in a long time.
For many American millennials, the defining traumatic event of their youth is the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For a lot of Baby Boomers, it’s the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For Zoomers? Well, it’ll probably be what’s happening in this country right now, with the pandemic. But for Gen-Xers—who grew up in an era when war was largely theoretical, and where most political debates centered on tax rates—the big, terrifying “Where were you?” moment was the Challenger explosion.
On January 28, 1986—a day when a lot of American kids were in school and watching the launch—the space shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds after liftoff, killing everyone aboard. One of those crew members was Christa McAuliffe, who’d been selected to be the first teacher in space, at a time when NASA was trying to reignite the public’s interest in their business by diversifying their astronaut pool. Instead, McAuliffe’s participation meant that a larger number of people witnessed a tragedy unfold, live on television.
The Final Flight looks back at the circumstances surrounding the explosion: what was off-kilter about the culture at NASA in the years leading up to the disaster; the bright hope represented by this particular crew; and how the space program changed afterward. Co-directors Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge have plenty of archival news footage to drawn on—much of it as raw and emotional now as it was when it aired 34 years ago—which they supplement with a few dramatic reenactments, and plenty of tear-filled interviews with some of the people who witnessed this history up close.
What emerges—especially in the fourth chapter—is the story of a noble American institution that by 1986 had gotten into the habit of cutting corners, assuming that everything would work out okay, as it nearly always had before. For the most part, there was nothing insidious happening at NASA before the disaster. It was more that some well-meaning people had lost perspective, and had grown overly complacent. That said, the most alarming interview in part four is with one of the men who green-lit the Challenger flight, who acknowledges the multiple warnings back then of a possible catastrophic equipment failure but says he’d still make the same call today, because he considers the rewards of the space program worth recklessly risking human lives. (For anyone wondering why a documentary about something that happened in the ’80s is still relevant today… well, the level of callousness in that comment should give a good reason, given that it’s more than a little reminiscent of our recent pandemic debates.)
The post-mortem passages of The Final Flight represent the series at its best. Like nearly every TV docuseries these days, this one is overlong, and broken up into too many parts. It could easily have been two tightly packed hourlong episodes, rather than three fairly shapeless ones that run around 40 minutes each followed by an excellent concluding one that runs around 50. But that last chapter is so moving—and at times enraging—that it justifies the whole project.
The first three episodes do zip by fairly quickly, and they do have their moments. Their primary purpose isn’t just to lay the groundwork for what went wrong on January 28, but to explain more about what and who was lost when the Challenger exploded. Leckart and Junge give each crew member some screen-time, documenting their past accomplishments and letting their loved ones talk about their personal lives. A lot of the astronauts on this mission emerged from an overdue initiative to bring more women and racial and ethnic minorities into the fold, which means that this documentary tells the inspiring stories that the crew members themselves might’ve told, had they lived.
Naturally, much of the “up close and personal” material is about McAuliffe. As NASA began considering sending civilians into space, the public debated who it should be. A writer? A celebrity? A journalist? (Among the names floated, according to the documentary: Tom Wolfe, Walter Cronkite, John Denver, and Big Bird.) When the decision was made to send a teacher, McAuliffe joined a group of contenders at space camp, where she quickly became a favorite not just of her instructors, but of her classmates. Her enthusiasm for the mission—and her genuine love for teaching—were infectious.
The earlier, looser episodes allow for more of an unabashed wallow in the particulars of the era, from the cringe-inducing (like Tom Brokaw asking Challenger crew-member Judith Resnik if anyone had ever suggested she was too cute to be an astronaut) to the retroactively ironic (like Jerry Seinfeld joking on The Tonight Show that the only way to interest people in the space program again would be to draft ordinary people who didn’t want to go). The Final Flight captures how much the space shuttle program’s first era shadowed 1980s culture, from the multiple congratulatory statements and phone calls from Ronald Reagan to the guest appearances by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Peter Billingsley at launches.
But Billingsley’s presence here—in older footage and in new interviews—also provides a useful pivot-point into episode four’s more substantive material. It’s harrowing to hear Billingsley describe what it was like to witness the Challenger explosion in person, standing in a crowd of people who weren’t sure what they were seeing until they heard the creepily detached voices of NASA Mission Control saying, “Obviously a major malfunction,” and, “The vehicle has exploded.” It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the images from that day—the weeping spectators, the contrail lingering in the sky—and by the testimony of family members describing their still-painful feelings of loss. (Try not to break down when one of the astronauts’ wives talks about disappearing into the bedroom to hug his clothes, and then finding the Valentine’s Day card he was planning to give her when he came home.)
The sentimentality quickly shifts to tension and outrage as The Final Flight gets to what happened next, which involved NASA stonewalling the press, the media doing their own analyses of the footage, President Reagan convening an exploratory commission (and giving its head the command, “Don’t embarrass NASA”), and a few unruly scientists (including the late, great Richard Feynman) slipping past the gatekeepers to say what needed to be said, about the agency’s increasing preferences for cost-cutting and upping the number of missions over basic safety protocols. The series ends with an impressive flourish.
So sure, The Final Flight could be a lot more focused. But Leckart and Junge ultimately have the goods, and they do deliver. Their final half-hour in particular is incredibly dramatic, echoing a lot of the discussions we’re still having—all about whether it’s better to be honest with the American people, or to preserve our myths and heroes.