Challenger: The Final Flight

The Challenger 7 at launch in episode 2 of CHALLENGER - THE FINAL FLIGHT. (Public Domain/NASA)

Challenger: The Final Flight is a four-part documentary series that explores both the lead-up and the aftermath of the Challenger explosion.

Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Dick Scobee were among NASA’s graduating class of 1978.  This was the most diverse class as the space program gave way to the 1980s.  Unfortunately, their lives would be lost in an accident that could have and should have been prevented.  As viewers learn during the program, NASA had documented evidence on hand of a looming disaster with the solid rocket booster’s o-ring and didn’t really do anything about it.  On the outside looking in, you wouldn’t have known the problems that plagued the Shuttle program.  Surely, NASA could have done something to prevent this.  Nope.  NASA spent 1986 being busy with promising Congress some 16 Shuttle missions.  And again, this is in spite of the documented problems.  If you ask me, this was reckless behavior.

Barely a minute after its launch in January 1986, the Challenger would be gone.  Millions of Americans witnessed the tragedy as it happened.  The launch was also historic in that it marked the first team that a teacher was set to go into orbit.  High school teacher Christa McAuliffe was among the diverse crew.  The first teacher named to a flight crew was a historic moment for the space program.  Sadly, McAuliffe died alongside her fellow astronauts during the explosion.

This documentary series does not dive into the emotional aspect of the events.  Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge are very careful in their direction not to go there.  This isn’t to say that surviving family members take the time to remember family members because they do.  What is important in terms of the approach is that there is never a display of people sobbing uncontrollably.  The family interviews are but one part of the story.  Where Leckart and Junge get exhaustive is through their interviews with former NASA officials and engineers.  Some of these people knew about the problems and despite discussions that included Morton Thiokol personnel, the flight still launched as scheduled.

The fourth episode looks at the explosion’s aftermath.  More importantly, the episode also takes an in-depth look at the Rogers Commission and their findings.  You cannot watch this fourth episode without feeling angry.  It is impossible!

Unfortunately, Bob Ebeling died before the filmmakers could capture his comments on camera.  However, they were able to feature his daughter on camera and it is just as powerful to hear her tell his side of the story.  And yet, he wouldn’t be the last person to document a problem and have it go ignored.  History repeated itself with Columbia in 2003.

The docu-series also delivers on training footage and rare archival material to back up the discussion.  It’s impressive to see some of the footage.  Did you know that Steven Spielberg showed up at one of the shuttle landings?

J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper are among the executive producers of this four-part series.

Challenger: The Final Flight is an exhaustive approach at what exactly transpired in January 1986.  There’s so much here that a feature-length film simply wouldn’t be enough.

DIRECTORS:  Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge
DEVELOPED BY:  Glen Zipper and Steven Leckart
FEATURING:  William Harwood, June Scobee Rodgers, William Lucas, Frederick Gregory, Cheryl McNair, Steve Nesbitt, Allan McDonald, Richard Cook, Robert Crippen, Richard Covey, Rhea Seddon, John Zarella, Arnold Alrich, Leslie Serna

Netflix releases Challenger: The Final Flight on September 16, 2020. Grade: 4.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.