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Culture Documentary

Pressure to launch

(Netflix)

Documentary

Pressure to launch

Challenger: The Final Flight examines the origin of a NASA disaster

The U.S. space program has been a source of pride to Americans and an inspiration to millions around the globe. But these missions into space have come with a cost—both financially and in human lives. 

The four-part Netflix documentary Challenger: The Final Flight tells the story of the space shuttle disaster of 1986. Producers use original footage of flight crew training and interviews with NASA officials, subcontractor employees, and journalists to paint a picture of an agency rushing to complete missions to justify its massive budget.

NASA began planning the space shuttle program in the 1970s to provide transport into orbit and launch satellites and exploratory missions. Challenger was the third shuttle built, and by 1986, launches had become routine. 

Or so it seemed. June Scobee Rodgers, widow of flight commander Dick Scobee, recalls her husband wondering if he should tell civilians “this is a risky business, [when] they were being told it’s like a commercial aircraft.”

A subcontractor company, Morton Thiokol, built the booster rockets that fired up and returned to Earth after each launch. Thiokol engineers noticed that the O-ring seals between sections of the solid rocket boosters were damaged after some launches, especially during cold weather. Despite damage to redundant systems—and seemingly in violation of safety protocols—NASA kept the schedule rolling. 

“They had 16 flights scheduled in 1986, and nine the previous year,” states one reporter. “They had promised this to Congress, and they were … determined to pull it off.”

Challenger’s 10th mission was scheduled from Cape Canaveral during a January cold spell. Thiokol employees raised concerns about the O-ring seals in an emergency meeting the day before the launch. But seemingly under pressure from NASA managers, Thiokol gave the go-ahead for launch. Interviewed 34 years later, these engineers still feel terrible guilt for signing off on the decision.

Crowds gathered to watch Challenger take off. As the craft cleared the tower, spectators cheered and hugged. Then, 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle exploded, killing all aboard.

In subsequent investigations, NASA officials were not forthcoming in acknowledging they knew about problems with the O-ring seals. But today, William Lucas, former director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, concedes, “My engineers knew that the joint should be redesigned, and that was in the process.” 

Still, he stands by his decisions: “Going into space is something that great countries do. … They want to advance technology. They want to learn. It’s also risky. … It’s regrettable, but costs sometimes are very difficult.”