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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.”

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Apple TV+

Apple TV+


Playing politics

Boys State offers a look at the political instincts of young Americans

Every summer, the veterans organization American Legion hosts nearly 20,000 teens in weeklong camps called Boys State. Hundreds of boys in each state run for mock political office (or did before COVID-19, at least), including the top spot of governor. Even if you’re not a political junkie, the experience seems like a lot of fun, especially as presented in the new documentary Boys State, filmed in Texas in 2018. 

You could summarize the award-winning film this way: Two liberal documentary-makers crash a conservative boys camp. Yet despite clear Democratic bias, filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine use a cinéma vérité style that lets the boys speak for themselves, giving viewers real insight. At times, Boys State feels relaxed or tongue-in-cheek. At other times it bursts with excitement—and testosterone—as more than a thousand raucous and rowdy 17-year-olds converge on Austin. 

Amid the chaos, McBaine and Moss focus on four boys—Steven, Robert, René, and Ben. Much of the time they portray the boys as three-dimensional people who make real moral choices. Choices like whether to lie to get ahead in their political ambitions. As Robert says, “My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there at all. So I chose to pick a new stance.” Unlike in grown-up politics, here we see behind the curtain to what’s really in their hearts and minds.

Boys State contains bad language and negative role models. But we also see a clear difference between servant leadership and self-serving politicians. Progressive Steven talks with the boys across the aisle and tries to represent their views as well as his own. In contrast, the Ronald Reagan–loving conservative Ben smears his opponents with whatever dirt he can find. To get ahead, he misrepresents Steven’s stance on guns. In Ben’s mind, lying is just part of the game. 

Since the film’s August release on Apple TV+, many media outlets have focused on the boys with progressive views. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, René describes encountering racism at the camp and suggests the U.S. political system rewards such behavior. “I believe that to love America is to be as cynical about our political system as necessary until real change is made,” he writes.

But the most hopeful reflection I’ve seen comes from Ben, the Reagan fan. The film brought him face to face with his shortcomings, as he explains in an interview with the Aspen Institute: “You know, when Steven’s gun control issue came out, my first instinct was, let’s smear him on it. … Boys State was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on it and say, just because that’s how it’s been, that’s not how it should be.” 

Ben’s mature introspection and repentance feels almost shocking in our culture today. And it offers some hope God isn’t done with these boys—or our country—just yet.

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Benjamin Watson


Glimpses of abortion’s divides

Divided Hearts of America peers into America’s abortion debate

When is a person a person? Who determines a child’s quality of life? What happens in an abortion procedure? 

Former NFL athlete and current father of seven Benjamin Watson started asking these questions of prominent thinkers last year. Filming for his documentary Divided Hearts of America began in 2019. Even with race issues and social justice taking center stage in 2020, Watson says abortion is the “core issue” at the center of all others. 

His 80-minute documentary, streaming on SalemNOW, addresses the history and current state of the American abortion debate. Watson interviewed more than 30 thinkers on both sides of the issue to find a solution.

Watson delivers in production value. But the script attempts too much. The many voices and topics crowd the film. The film’s tagline is “Discovering the secret that will unite us”—a secret that, when revealed in the film, is too vague to do any good. 

But the documentary has strengths: A former abortionist recounts the pregnancy that changed her mind. An abortion survivor talks about the saline solution she soaked in for five days in her mother’s womb. A woman shares the heartbreak of her own abortion: Her abortionist grabbed the baby’s remains and announced, “Just so you know, it was a girl.” In these moments, the documentary moves beyond punditry to glimpse the wounded hearts abortion leaves behind.

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