There’s been a recent unlikely renaissance of movies and TVs about the past, present and even the speculative future of the U.S. space program. There were the recent feature films “Hidden Figures,” “Ad Astra” and “First Man,” as well as last year’s flop “Lucy in the Sky.” There was also an acclaimed 2019 documentary called “Apollo 11,” which assembled a cache of never-before-seen archival footage to tell the story of the 1969 moon landing from beginning to end.
On streaming services, there’s Netflix’s recent satirical treatment of “Space Force” and its new drama series “Away.” Apple TV+ last year debuted the alternate-history series “For All Mankind,” which has a second season on the way, and next month Disney+ will debut a new TV series edition of “The Right Stuff.” And now, there’s a new four-part documentary, debuting this week on Netflix, called “Challenger: The Final Flight.”
Most of those movies and shows, if they haven’t been character studies of individual astronauts, have been ultimately about celebrating triumphs of the U.S. space program. The “Challenger” series, which runs four episodes of about forty-five minutes each, instead looks at one of its greatest tragedies and failures.
The Challenger was the space shuttle that exploded shortly after launching on January 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, who was the first civilian chosen for a space shuttle mission.
No one who watched the ill-fated launch could possibly forget it—including a nation of children who caught it right before school—but the documentary spends four hours exploring all of the aspects you may not remember so clearly. It’s a compelling exploration of its subject, although not quite the achievement of last year’s “Apollo 11.”
The series was created by Steven Leckart and Glen Zipper, both of whom were young kids when the Challenger blew up, while J.J. Abrams is also listed as an executive producer.
The “Challenger” mini-series features complex stories from both before and after the explosion. We learn about the lives of the astronauts lost, while hearing from their loved ones, and also about the investigation that followed, and the warnings NASA received about O-ring seals that just such a disaster was possible.
It may not be as exciting or uplifting as certain other recent space projects, but “Challenger” is a worthwhile examination of NASA’s darkest day, and what came before and after.
“Challenger: The Final Flight” debuts on Netflix Wednesday.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.