TV Review: ‘The Challenger Disaster’

The Challenger Disaster TV Review Discovery

William Hurt lends authority to fact-based Science/Discovery Channel movie presentation

A shared Discovery/Science Channel telecast, “The Challenger Disaster” approaches the 27-year-old tragedy like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, with William Hurt cast as the eccentric physicist who put the pieces together. Daring to focus on the painstaking aspects of scientific inquiry, the movie approaches the story with enough time having passed to feel fresh, emerging as a small but engaging international production – one that feels pretty timeless in its look at cover-your-ass bureaucracy – helped by first-class casting that in addition to Hurt includes Bruce Greenwood and Brian Dennehy.

Hurt plays Dr. Richard Feynman, a brilliant California physicist, avowed atheist and cancer patient who, in the wake of the Challenger explosion (tastefully dealt with via video in the first five minutes), is enlisted by a former student to join the presidential commission assembled to find out what happened.

Reluctant at first, once there Feynman becomes the proverbial bull in a china shop, approaching wary NASA employees and chafing against the commission’s seeming lack of urgency. That’s largely because the other appointees – and chairman William Rogers (Dennehy, in a mini “Gorky Park” reunion) – all hail from agencies that one way or another have a vested stake in the space program or the status quo.

Feynman is told all this by an Air Force general, Donald Kutyna (Greenwood), who quietly encourages him to aggressively press onward as the panel’s only independent voice, and thus the best hope of a resolution.

Looking a bit like a mad scientist with his wild mop of hair, Hurt portrays Feynman (and the project is in part based on his book) as someone determined to get to the bottom of these “appalling deaths,” becoming a junior sleuth as he zeroes in on the flaw in the O-rings. All that’s despite Feynman’s failing health and utter lack of diplomacy.

Written by Kate Gartside and directed by James Hawes, the movie is devoid of fabricated fireworks, but its apparent commitment to authenticity is driven home by a closing sequence showing the real-life Feynman questioning a witness, almost uncannily resembling its duplication by Hurt a few moments earlier. (One might ask why this quintessentially American story was shot in South Africa, but producers pursue tax credits even more doggedly than Feynman sought the truth.)

Ultimately, at a time when the cinematic designation “true story” frequently requires a litany of mealy-mouthed disclaimers, that level of fidelity alone would make “Challenger Disaster” a trip worth taking.

TV Review: 'The Challenger Disaster'

(Movie; Discovery/Science Channel, Sat. Nov. 16, 9 p.m.)


Filmed in South Africa by BBC, Moonlighting RST Prods. And Erste Weltweit Gmbh.


Executive producers, Mark Hedgecoe, Cassian Harrison, Rocky Collins; producer, Laurie Borg; director, James Hawes; writer, Kate Gartside; camera, Lukas Strebel; production designer Anthony Ainsworth; editor, Peter Christelis; music, Christopher Letcher. 120 MIN.


William Hurt, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Dennehy, Eve Best, Joanne Whalley.

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  1. Andrew Lawton says:

    Let’s say the movie was entertaining but lacking when the whole story had to be told. As an aerospace engineering graduate, I was made familiar with many of the shuttles functions and policies including a launch temp of 50 degrees. While there was a failure in the o rings, it didn’t explain why the explosion was near the upper portion of the external tank near the internal hydrogen fuel system. All a person needs to do is view the original news footage of the disaster to realize there is much more to this story. I have my own opinions, including why NASA didn’t have an emergency parachute in the nosecone of the shuttle in case of such as disaster.

  2. Bob Wilson says:

    Is it a fallacy that because of pressure from the Pentagon, the shuttle schedule was more important than the lives of it’s crew. Is it a fallacy that politicians and bureaucrats lie to the general public that put them in place, not only in America, but every country in the world. $$$$ are the reason this happens. $$$$ are more important than lives. Maybe I should just back to watching Judge Judy and The View. Maybe I should just go back to sleep like the rest of the American Public.

  3. Mike Wann says:

    What a lame non-sequiter.

  4. Bob Wilson says:

    Once again, it shows how the White House and Pentagon lie to the American public, and how the American public eats it up as the truth.
    With so many past historical situations to choose from, The Gulf of Tonkin, the Kennedy assassinations, The Warren commission report, The 911 commission report, both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, you would think the American public would finally have woken up, but alas no. They are kept in a deep coma by their own media.
    My only hope is that there is truly a return of Christ, the only person that could ever right these wrongs.

  5. Joan Parenti says:

    I was unable to watch the Challenger Disaster movie on Discovery last weekend, so my husband used the DVR. We just watched it, and unfortunately it cut off the last couple of very important minutes. Does anyone know when and if it will be aired again?

  6. Susan says:

    Loved the movie, William Hurt and the entire cast were great. The only complaint I have, Brighthouse cut the movie off before it was over. It probably only ran several more minutes,important minutes. It cut off when William Hurt was asking NASA what the purpose of the O rings was and was about to show us what would happen if the O rings were exposed to a class of ice water when NASA was telling everyone they would only malfunction at 200 degrees below zero. I am only guessing, because we never got to see it. The choice of “Save or Delete” came on the screen and the movie stopped. I am hoping we will have a chance to see it in full shortly.

    • Mike Wann says:

      It is not Brighthouse’s fault…it is Discovery Channel’s. the entire movie is only 3-4 minutes over 2 hrs. including credits which shows actual testimony footage at the hearing involving the O-ring as they are running. By extending your recording time just a few minutes over 2 hours at the next opportunity (there have been several replays…look on Science Channel also) you can see ending. Too bad DC ruined this for DVR recording…have not seen any apologies despite all the hype in promoting the movie.

  7. Frame313 says:

    William Hurt just knocked this role outta the park. What a great portrayal as Dr. Feynman – there is plenty video of the man and his work; Hurt clearly did his homework thoroughly. I watched it twice, ordered Feynman’s book and then watched two supplemental documentaries in just the following day.

    Discovery Channel (and to a much lesser degree, The Science Channel,) should gear back toward this kind of smart, engaging educational/entertainment rather than the reality-trap-dreck they’ve sunk to a la ‘Moonshiner-Morons’, ‘Crab-Wars’ and ‘Gold-Digger’ trash TV.
    And while the accuracy of this movie could be debated and/or altered for content, this truly engaged me and made me want to learn more all while being simply fun to watch. The History Channel and TLC should take note as well. Here endeth the lecture…

    Well done BBC.

  8. Debra says:

    So my DVR recording stopped before the show did — why can we not get the kind of DVRs they have in Europe that record an entire event, no matter when it ends? Oh, right, unfettered capitalism where huge profits matter more than innovation and customer service.

    • Mike Wann says:

      Sounds like a conspiracy theory. Actually, the fault is Discovery Channel’s in providing content (mostly advertising) that made the content exceed the 2-hour posted time for the program. I re-recorded the movie tonight and added additional headroom for the recording, and, was able to watch the ending, which, annoyingly, was only about 2 minutes over 2 hours. Discovery Channel screw-up, no doubt.

  9. Debbie Phillips says:

    I also was disappointed to miss the end and then find that there was a botched attempt to right it that failed. I am recording one more time on another channel (Science Network) late Sunday night and also recording the show after it and the one after that. A total of four hours should certainly alllow me to see the end! Does no one monitor these things at The Discovery Network.

  10. ADRIANA says:

    Missed your episode and wanted to see if you will run this documentary again at an earlier time?

  11. Mike Wann says:

    Unfortunately, I was unable to watch the end of the movie because it exceeded the 2-hour segment allotted to it on the TV menu and the DVR stopped recording…a later Hail Mary attempt…in the hope one mistake would mean another…led to an avalanche of “Fast ‘n Loud” recordings, strange programming for The Discovery Science Channel. Rebroadcast?…maybe wedge it in among plethora of Fast ‘n Loud replays?

  12. David F. Pawlowski says:

    It is public fact that the Regan administrations handlers during the preceeding presidential contest were concerned about polling that revealed the Democratics had an edge in education. As such, the teachers in space initiative was formed and implemented to seize the “high ground”. It is also long been rumored that the then head of NASA was in the Oval office watching the fleet and that an instant hook up with the Oval Office was in place to allow Regan to speak to Ms. MacAffulie (the teacher on the flight) as another “hearts and minds” capture moment. It begs the question to this day was the launch pressure and subsequent near white wash conducted by the Rogers commission engineered to spin the public and protect those officials who pushed the launch despite the clear prompts to stop and the brave efforts of the Thiokol engineering staff to not sign off on the flight safety document. If those accounts have a grain of truth those officials should not have received promotions (as some did), but placed before a grand jury. Read the book; “Challenger Revealed” by Richard C. Cook.

  13. Frank W says:

    With all the crappy JFK films running around, I approached The Challenger Disaster (which I saw explode from Miami) with trepidation as another Made for Cable cheapy. Your review gave me faith that it may actually be good.

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