18 October 2020

Wired: “Netflix’s ‘Challenger’ is a Gripping Look at NASA in Crisis”

Challenger: The Final Flight Netflix docuseries
Challenger: The Final Flight a new, four-part documentary series, is executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper and directed by Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge. (Image credit: Netflix)

The emotional rollercoaster of getting to know McAullife and the other astronauts who you know are doomed is a critical foil to the comparatively dry engineering drama that was simmering in the background. The cause of the Challenger disaster was ultimately determined to be a failed O-ring, a giant elastic band that was used to seal sections of the space shuttle’s two solid rocket boosters. Engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the contractor that manufactured the boosters for NASA, had noticed a disturbing tendency for the O-ring seals to fail during tests if temperatures were below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And when a cold snap hit Florida a few days before the Challenger mission, the weather was forecast to be in the low- to mid-30s during the launch.

Our engineers were concerned that the O-rings were going to be colder than any we’d ever launched and that it might be worse this time than we’d ever seen, Joseph Kilminster, the vice president of Morton-Thiokol’s solid rocket booster program, says in the film. Brian Russell, an engineer at the company, concurs. We believed the risk was higher, but we didn’t know how much higher, he says in the doc. We didn’t know the point of failure. But despite these concerns, managers at Morton-Thiokol and NASA decided to forge ahead anyway.

Daniel Oberhaus

I rarely watch documentaries these days, but Netflix usually has a good supply and in this particular case I was interested in the subject. I obviously heard about the Challenger disaster, but when it happened I was too young to care and living on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, where the major event of the year was the Chernobyl nuclear accident. And later I never took the time to read about the events and causes surrounding it.

It was fascinating to discover how the launch was postponed not once, but twice, and to think how things might have turned out differently if they had launched on Sunday as originally planned, or decided to postpone again or even scrap the launch altogether to fix the faulty booster design first. It was sad to feel the loss and shock of the family members and public as they realized the crew had no chance of escaping the explosion – and again as their bodies were later recovered from the wreck. I particularly enjoyed the forth and final episode detailing the investigation that followed the disaster, featuring Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman – and David Sanger, a New York Times journalist whose voice I recognized from a podcast I regularly listen to, Deep State Radio.

June Scobee Rodgers shares memories of her husband, STS-51L commander Francis Dick Scobee
June Scobee Rodgers shares memories of her husband, STS-51L commander Francis "Dick" Scobee, in the new documentary series Challenger: The Final Flight. (Image credit: Netflix)

On some level I agree with Lawrence Mulloy, the project director for the Marshall Space Flight Center at the time, that spaceflight inherently involves risks and without accepting them we cannot advance in this field. But this was an entirely preventable failure, and the risk knowingly hidden from the people boarding the shuttle. The story has striking similarities with the recent crashes of the Boeing 737 Max airplanes, from ambitious schedules to a breakdown of communication between engineers and management. Coupled with the space shuttle Columbia disaster, which this documentary alludes was caused by a similar management dysfunction inside NASA, it led to the eventual retirement of the space shuttle and a growing aversion for taking risks in space exploration.

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