The four-part docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight, executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper and directed by Daniel Junge and Steven Leckart, takes a closer look at the explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. All seven of the mission’s crew members – Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair — were killed. Of course, not only was this the first time in the then-25-year history of America’s manned space flight missions that astronauts were killed in flight, but it was the first Shuttle flight where a regular citizen, “teacher in space” Christa McAuliffe, was on board.
Opening Shot: A recreation of a teacher in January, 1986, rolling a TV to the front of her classroom and turning it on, the class seeing the image of the space shuttle Challenger on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral.
The Gist: Through dozens of interviews with former astronauts and NASA officials, and archival footage of the Shuttle program, as well as training footage that has rarely been seen, the docuseries dives into the beginnings of the Shuttle program, NASA’s desire to bring attention to its flagging popularity with the Teacher In Space program, and the ill-fated Challenger flight. We get mini profiles of the six non-civilian crew members who perished, and find out a few things about them, like how McNair played sax in a jazz band, how Onizuka liked to pull pranks, and how Resnik told dates she was just an engineer if the space program never came up.
But much of the concentration, of course, is on McAuliffe and how she was selected from thousands of applicants to be the first teacher in space. An intimate portrait of the New Hampshire teacher is given by her sister Lisa Bristol as well as Barbara Morgan, the woman who trained alongside McAuliffe as her designated backup.
Another concentration is the Shuttle program itself, and the “Class of ’78”, NASA’s most diverse astronaut class ever, who trained for three years to be prepared for the program’s initial missions, which started in April of 1981 with the launch of Columbia. The idea of the Shuttle was that it was supposed to be a “space truck,” a reusable plane that hauled satellites, private cargo, pieces of the International Space Station, and experiments into space. To get funding from Congress, NASA promised dozens of missions per year. But delays and other issues plagued the program, and the January 1986 flight was only its 25th mission.
A major issue, one that gets more play in the second episode, was that the solid rocket boosters that were used during launch, after having been retrieved from their ocean landing, constantly came back to contractor Morton Thiokol with damage to the rubber O-rings that were supposed to seal off each section of the rocket boosters. Any major failure of the redundant rings would cause the Shuttle to explode. People in NASA and Thiokol wanted the rings to be overhauled, but NASA took the risk and had the missions continue, mainly under self-imposed pressure to fly more often. But when a previous cold-weather launch showed that the rubber rings would become brittle, concern really ramped up, given that the January 1986 launch would be the coldest launch ever.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? In a way, Challenger: The Final Flight feels like many of the other docuseries we’ve seen that goes back over a notorious or tragic incident from the ’70s or ’80s in order to bring the day to life for those who didn’t live through it. Anything from true crime docuseries like the one about The Preppy Murder to big-scam docuseries like McMillions seem to fit alongside the Challenger series.
Our Take: Why did we say that Challenger: The Final Flight is similar to McMillions? Because, if you are old enough to remember the Challenger explosion, like I am, you know what a historic event it was. The country stopped at the sight of McAuliffe and the rest of the crew exploding midflight, and it was considered a national tragedy on par with the Kennedy assassination. Its impact has lessened somewhat over the past 34 years, as 9/11, the 2003 Columbia explosion, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and now the COVID pandemic have eclipsed it. But the tragedy of the explosion can’t be understated.
For folks like us, the series doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. All of the information about the accident, from how the Teacher In Space program was conceived, to the red flags people within NASA and Thiokol put up about the O-rings, to even the fact that NASA made Shuttle flights seem routine and safe when they were anything but, has been discussed in news reports, in-depth documentaries, and books. Heck, I did a science fair project on what happened a few months after the explosion.
Where the series shines is in the little details, especially when it discussed the lives of the other six crew members who died along with McAuliffe. Because McAuliffe garnered so much attention, it always felt like the other six crew members got a whole lot less attention, even after the accident. Sure, they were all mourned by everyone from Ronald Reagan on down, but any information on their lives beyond the fact that they were trained astronauts rarely came through. The mini portraits of the crew members was a reminder that the people NASA picked for the Shuttle program went way beyond the white, male, crew-cutted test pilots that populated the agency’s previous programs, even the Apollo missions that went to the moon in the ’60s and ’70s.
Of course, its access also helps, from the wives of some of the crew members to former astronauts like Robert Crippen, who flew the first Shuttle mission. But the more intimate the show gets, the better it is.
Parting Shot: In the first episode, the daughter of the Thiokol engineer in charge of the solid rocket booster program, talks about how he continuously expressed that at some point, the Shuttle is going to explode due to the O-ring fault in the boosters.
Sleeper Star: We wanted to find out more about Judy Resnik, who was the second American woman in space after Sally Ride, but who was determined to just be considered another engineer going up there to operate the Shuttle’s robot arm. When the chauvinist dunderheads at NASA gave her pink satin sheets in her quarters during training, she rightfully told them to cut that stuff right out. Oh, and Peter Billingsley, now a producer, is interviewed; in his post-Christmas Story days, he was scheduled to go on a press tour with McAuliffe as the representative of the Young Astronauts Club.
Most Pilot-y Line: None we could think of.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Challenger: The Final Flight is full of information for people who only know about the Challenger explosion as a historic event, but even for those of us who were around when it happened, the details and never-before-seen footage will keep us interested.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.