Glen Zipper spoke with Solzy at the Movies on Monday morning about Challenger: The Final Flight, a documentary series now airing on Netflix.
Zipper is also the co-author of a new science-fiction novel, Devastation Class.
Challenger: The Final Flight launches September 16 on Netflix. How long have you been wanting to tell this particular story?
Glen Zipper: I’ve been wanting to tell the story it seems like my whole life. I was one of those kids watching the tragedy unfold before my eyes. We weren’t watching the launch live. I was an algebra class in the seventh or eighth grade and a teacher ran into our class and whispered into our teacher’s ear. Our teacher turns in class and said, “Something terrible has happened. We’re all going to go into the cafeteria. We’re going to turn on the TV because it’s history and you need to see it.”
It’s kind of remarkable that they had the presence of mind to think that it was a historical moment that was unfolding and that it was important for us to see it. It was also very traumatic because when you’re in seventh or eighth grade, you’re still very young person. For many of us, that was our first experience with death. That moment was an indelible moment in my life and it stuck with me forever. It wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to me that I can be part of telling the story of Challenger but it did inspire a fascination with science and space for me that it stuck with me through my entire life, including writing a science fiction novel called Devastation Class.
When Steven Leckart and I came up with the idea of telling the story of Challenger, I was actually supposed to co-direct it with him. It was going to be my first my first directing gig after producing for many years. I think directors tired of me backseat driving and said, “Why don’t you direct one of these? Leave us alone.” It very quickly occurred to me that I couldn’t write a book and direct the film at the same time. We brought in Daniel Junge. He was a big upgrade as an Oscar winner and he co-directed it with Steven.
At what point in production did you realize that this wasn’t a feature-length film but a documentary series?
Glen Zipper: Very early on. The first research trip we made—Steven and I—was to go meet with the family of Bob Ebeling. We wanted to meet with him but he was very ill. By the time we got to Utah, he had passed away. We did sit down with his children and his widow. From meeting with them alone and hearing the story from their perspective, it was immediately apparent to us that we need the larger canvas to tell the story because one of the other creative impetus that drove us telling the story was that we didn’t feel like we had ever seen a telling of the story that was from the family’s perspective or the astronaut’s perspective. It was always 30,000 feet somewhat clinical or leaning into the spectacle of the tragedy.
We would ask people if they remembered the tragedy. They’d always go to the place of saying, “Yeah, of course, I remember everything about it.” Then we’d say, “Well, do you remember the astronauts” Again, they go, “Of course, we do”. We’d ask them to name the astronauts and they would say, “No problem. There’s Christa McAuliffe, and then there’s…” They trail off. The fact that people didn’t remember the names of other astronauts certainly meant they didn’t know their stories. They didn’t know that they had families. They didn’t know that their loss affected so many people in so many different powerful ways that again, became very clear to us that we needed to tell all of their stories. In order to do that, we were gonna need more than 90 minutes.
Do you have any regrets in not starting the filmmaking process sooner so that you could have Bob Ebeling on camera?
Glen Zipper: There’s always regrets in every in every project but we did have Bob’s daughter, Leslie, in the film. She recounts such a powerful telling of the story from Bob’s perspective that it turned out alright. She was there with him. She was not just a third-person witness who got her information from her dad telling her stories at home or years later. She was carpooling with him to work every day and she was there with him in the control room on the day of the accident.
I thought it really hard in that NASA knew they had a problem, did nothing, and the results were disastrous. To see this happen all over again with Columbia is just mind-boggling.
Glen Zipper: Yeah. There’s been dissertations written about the problems of groupthink and how things like this can happen when you’re running through the actual tables and the risk mitigation and considerations through the hive mind. When there’s not an individual or small group of individuals who can raise a flag, and that automatically stops something like this. Part of the reason for telling this story was for it to be a cautionary tale. Because when you look at SpaceX, when you look at Blue Origin, when you look at all the endeavors into space going forward, this can and probably will happen again. It’ll be inevitable that we have loss going forward in the future. Space travel is risky business but we’re hoping that by revisiting the story of Challenger, hopefully we can remind people that although there is inevitable risk, it doesn’t always mean that we have to proceed in the face of that risk.
Going into the doc series, how much did you know about what caused the explosion or the commission’s findings?
Glen Zipper: A bit. It’s no secret that there was an engineering and design flaw in the O-rings. That’s been covered many, many times. What we didn’t know were the personal stories around that, who was aware of it, who warned people how the information got to be the Rogers Commission, how it was brought forward to the public, how the families of the astronauts reacted to the revelations. Those were the revelations in our story and those are the stories that we were very pleased to have been able to find.
Where was the state of post-production when the pandemic hit in March?
Glen Zipper: We were very late game. I think we were just wrapping up the fourth episode when things really got hairy. We had to transition to a remote workflow but then, the chemistry between our team—between Daniel and Steven and myself and Sean Stuart and Bad Robot—was humming on all cylinders. We were able to make the transition quite seamlessly and like anyone else transitioning to remote workflow there were hiccups here and there but there were more technical hiccups. We were able to complete the series. Had the pandemic struck a little bit early, I think would have slowed us down. It wouldn’t be premiering in two days but probably be three months from now. I think the timing of it was just late enough in the game for us that we were able to complete the project on schedule.
How does a former assistant prosecutor end up becoming a film producer?
Glen Zipper: A dog. That may sound like a joke but it really was a dog. I encountered a stray pitbull puppy on the streets of Jersey City, New Jersey in 2003, which brought me to an animal shelter. I had never really been to an animal shelter in my life and absolutely broke my heart. I may be compressing the timeline a little bit. But basically, that was a Friday and on Monday, I turned in my badge and went to volunteer at the animal shelter. I was not very happy being a prosecutor. But after a few months of volunteering at an animal shelter, I was finally happy. I was doing something with my life felt like it mattered. At some point, I said, Well, I want to feel this way for the rest of my life and I know I won’t be able to pay my bills or volunteering at an animal shelter, ad infinitum. I asked myself the question, what did I always want to do with my life if I wasn’t succumbing to the pressures of what my family thought was best for me? I always wanted to be a storyteller. I ended up adopting that dog because no one else wanted him. My dog’s name was Anthony. We got into my truck and we drove from New Jersey to Los Angeles. We embarked upon my journey in storytelling, which bizarrely in the same week, Challenger and my book, Devastation Class, comes out. That just seems—I’m not one to really look for signs but when something like that happens, it really feels like one. Sadly, Anthony was with me for 17 years and he passed away just this December. He’s been my co-pilot the whole time and I miss him terribly but if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be on the phone with you.
I’m so sorry for your loss. Having had two dogs, I know how much they’re like family.
Glen Zipper: Thank you. He was my child. I don’t have kids. He was always my child. I was listening to a piece of music last night. I happened upon it by accident. It was music that I was listening to on the day he passed away and I was sitting in bed at midnight in tears. The pain never leaves you but the joy of having an animal is so powerful, it’s worth it. You know that it’s inevitable that you’re going to have to say goodbye at some point but I just try not think of it as goodbye but instead, I’ll see you later.
That kind of distracted me with my own chain of thought.
Glen Zipper: It’s powerful. Anything related to these animals affects us deeply. I have another show on Netflix called Dogs that I make with Amy Berg and it was inspired by Anthony, Shameless plug: we’ll have season two of Dogs in early 2021.
What do you hope people take away from watching Challenger: The Final Flight?
Glen Zipper: In addition to it being a cautionary tale, the other thing that occurs to me, Daniel, and Steven is—this is overstating the obvious—we’re at an incredibly divisive moment in our country’s history. There’s very few things other than dogs that we all agree on that will bring us together but space and the imagination of the possibilities for the future through space travel is something that we all gravitate to, is something that we’re all excited about, is something that we all agree that we’re interested in and need to do right. We hope that when people watch this series on Wednesday, it reminds them of that. It reminds them of something that we share. It’s something that we can agree on as a nation and as a collective. Hopefully, that reminds us that our differences aren’t as great as they may seem right now.
With your new sci-fi book, Devastation Class, are you looking at maybe adapting that into a feature film screenplay?
Glen Zipper: As a matter of fact, we are. We’re in those discussions right now with some very cool and exciting people that I would probably be either taken out or sued if I told you about but that looks like it’s happening and we’re incredibly excited.