It was an unusually frigid morning at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986. For days, a cold front had gripped central Florida and caused temperatures to regularly dip below freezing. In the sprawling marshland across from Kennedy’s mission control room, technicians raced to clear the icicles that draped the space shuttle Challenger, which was scheduled to depart later that morning on its 10th orbital flight. It was an unprecedented prelaunch procedure, but NASA officials didn’t deem it a showstopper. Once the ice was cleared, Challenger and its seven occupants were go for launch.
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Challenger: The Final Flight, a new Netflix documentary that drops on Wednesday, opens with the countdown sequence for the ill-fated shuttle mission. Whether you’re a young space-history buff or old enough to have watched the launch live, the documentary’s intro can be hard to stomach. You know what comes next. You know that at first, everything seems fine. You know the facial expressions of the astronauts’ friends and family members cheering their loved ones as they blast into space. You know that approximately a minute after launch, the shuttle disintegrates above the Atlantic Ocean. And you know the shape of the explosion’s two white contrails as they snake across a clear blue sky. Their contours are immediately recognizable, a tragic skywritten message that is all the more terrible for its abstraction, its senseless twists and turns an emblem for the cold, unfeeling march of technological progress.
But what you might not know—at least not entirely—is the chain of what the documentary describes as misjudgments and perverse priorities that made the Challenger disaster possible and led to the first deaths of American astronauts during flight. The four-part series collects a wealth of archival footage and adds new interviews with the families of the crew and NASA engineers involved with the flight. What emerges is a picture of NASA in crisis, where the bureaucratic demands of staying on schedule won out over the concerns of engineers about the safety of the vehicle.
“I was in elementary school when it happened, and it impacted me very deeply to see that live, but the teacher turned the television off and we didn't talk about it,” says Steven Leckart, a codirector of the documentary and former WIRED correspondent. “I wanted to understand what I didn’t know at the time because I was a child. But nobody had quite captured the comprehensive story.”
The Challenger documentary spends a lot of its first half following Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire who was selected from more than 11,000 applicants to become the first “everyday” astronaut to fly on a NASA space mission. (McAuliffe is often described as the first civilian astronaut, but she was preceded by a senator and engineers from companies that worked on the shuttle.) Although each of the professional astronauts that would accompany McAuliffe to orbit get a comparably small amount of screen time, the focus on her feels natural. She was, after all, the star of the Challenger mission and a source of fascination for the American public.
“The more footage we saw of Christa, the more endearing and incredible she became,” says codirector Daniel Junge. “She was the everywoman or, in the parlance of the time, ‘the girl next door.’ It was never hard to identify with her.”
That makes the disaster all the more heartbreaking. Astronauts train their whole lives to prepare for spaceflight. They are the grizzled fighter pilots, engineers, and scientists who for years have been forced to grapple with and accept the extreme risks of their profession. But McAullife was just a teacher plucked from a small town. She was just your average American. She could have been anybody—even you.
In the lead up to launch, McAullife was treated as a minor celebrity who seemed able to effortlessly charm talk-show hosts. And according to the documentary, this was exactly the effect that NASA officials hoped to achieve with the civilian astronaut program. They wanted to paint the space shuttle as a reliable mode of human space exploration that wasn’t much riskier than flying on a commercial airliner. If it was safe for a school teacher after only a few weeks of training, it was safe enough for everyone. But according to the testimony of several people featured in the doc, NASA’s public message conflicted with what many of its own engineers knew to be true: Every flight of the space shuttle was risky, and the circumstances surrounding this particular flight made it unsafe to launch.
“I think the most fundamental impact of the Challenger disaster was discarding the myth that the shuttle was safe enough to put ordinary citizens on,” says John Logsdon, a space historian at George Washington University who was not involved with the documentary. “There was a pervasive groupthink in the organization that this is what we’ve promised, and even though we know this vehicle isn’t capable of that, we’re not going to say so.”
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.
The question, of course, is why? Why would NASA and one of its contractors go against the advice of engineers who were concerned that the cold weather would cause a catastrophic failure? In the aftermath of the disaster, an investigation by a presidential commission found that managers at Morton-Thiokol “recommended the launch … contrary to the views of its engineers in order to accommodate a major customer.”
This is also the conclusion that Junge and Leckart arrive at in their film. “The ultimate deciders had pressures that probably had an undue effect on making what was, in the end, a terrible decision,” says Junge, speaking to WIRED.
NASA press representatives did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request for comment about this assessment. But in the documentary, William Lucas, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Center, who received the brunt of the criticism for the disaster, says he would still make the same decision today with that data that he had received from Morton-Thiokol. “I did what I thought was right in light of the information I had,” he says in the documentary.
NASA didn’t fly another astronaut for nearly three years following the Challenger disaster. In the interim, high-ranking engineers resigned amid strong criticisms about how they handled the mission, and the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were redesigned to avoid similar failures. In the 35 years since that fateful January day, NASA has lost only one other crew of astronauts, during the shuttle Columbia’s return from space in 2003. By the time the shuttle program ended in 2011, 833 astronauts had flown on the one-of-a-kind spacecraft; 14 never came back.
Earlier this year, NASA passed the torch to SpaceX, which became the first private company to launch American astronauts on a commercial rocket. SpaceX will now be one of the two main launch providers ferrying astronauts to orbit. And like NASA in the 1980s, SpaceX has plans to carry civilians into the final frontier, although its rockets have little in common with the space shuttle and come equipped with an escape system to carry astronauts to safety in the event of an explosion. For now, its customers are billionaires like the hotel magnate Robert Bigelow and the Japanese fashion titan Yusaku Maezawa. But Elon Musk has made it clear that in the future he wants his rockets to open up space for anybody who wants to go—that’s right, even you.
At a time when the prospect of citizen spaceflight is on the cusp of becoming a reality, Challenger: The Final Flight is a sobering reminder that space exploration is an inherently risky business. “The message is that all factors have to be weighed,” says Junge. “Science needs to prevail rather than politics or pride.”