Netflix’s ‘Challenger’ Is a Gripping Look at NASA in Crisis

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.

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.”