If America’s modern space age began in the 1960s, it hit a wall in 1986 with the Challenger disaster, when the U.S. space shuttle by that name exploded during takeoff, killing all seven crew members aboard. The element that took this from sorrowful and tragic error to generation-defining news event was the presence onboard of Christa McAuliffe, a civilian schoolteacher specifically chosen for the mission in order to catalyze student interest in America’s quest for the stars. Those students drawn to watching the launch by the promise of a relatable figure to take them along were confronted with live-television tragedy when O-ring seals failed in unusually cold weather; space exploration may have continued, but some innocence or optimism was lost.
The case made by “Challenger: The Final Flight,” a new four-episode documentary series on Netflix produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper, is that this didn’t need to happen. Over its run, the series assembles evidence from those who were involved in the space program at the time and those who knew them that the process of getting the Challenger in the air in 1986 was done shoddily, due to the desire to score public-relations wins for NASA. Leslie Serma, the daughter of a late booster rocket engineer, describes her father’s anguish at not having been able to stop the launch; Richard Cook, a NASA resource analyst in the 1980s, describes what he views as a “cover-up.”
“Challenger,” then, moves this story from a tragedy into an outrage. But it does an elegant job, too, of conveying precisely why NASA felt it needed the boost of a popular and quick mission, and what it might have gained. The filmmakers shrewdly include a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine from the time about the complete absence of the space shuttle from the popular imagination; they put in, too, the glowing coverage that advances in representation received, including Brokaw’s asking female Challenger astronaut Judith Resnik if she had dreamed of being an astronaut “as a little girl” and telling his viewers she was single. What might have been is painful to contemplate, both for our culture and, far more pressingly, for the loved ones of seven who would have returned to earth living to tell the tale rather than eulogized heroes. We hear, movingly, from McAuliffe’s sister and other family members, lending faces to the sense of rush and error. Less compelling are flicks at the idea that the presence of a non-astronaut on the shuttle was distracting or irresponsible, a case around the series’s margins that never connects. (The movie credulously puts forward the astounding claim that McAuliffe’s flight was part of a build towards putting a kid — the star of “A Christmas Story,” at that — in space, a moment that demands another beat, to explain more or to complicate.)
The series, then, can be somewhat scattered, as if it doesn’t want to solely be seen as exposé. Its excavation of the social climate leading up to the fated final Challenger launch is intertwined with its claims of a deeply flawed launch, but the first element there is more interesting, too. That’s in part because, for a general audience, it’s made much easier to understand, as four fleet episodes are perhaps too little time to educate a viewer on rocket science. The degree to which NASA’s hand was or felt forced by a cultural shift away from fascination with space is a case made crisply at the center of a series that can grow fuzzy on its margins. The greatest irony of the series is that it arrives at a time in which our fascination with space onscreen has never been greater but our interest in real-world space exploration has faded out, a consequence in part of a generation seeing the dreams of a nation explode on television. In the end, a mission meant to turn America’s gaze towards the stars turned many away. “Challenger” has no real take on this but to balefully acknowledge it happened and commemorate those who were lost; it’s not the most ambitious of goals, but it’s enough.