What Netflix’s New Documentary Misses About the Challenger Disaster
Netflix has a new four-part documentary out called Challenger: The Final Flight on the January 1986 space shuttle disaster. As other reviewers have written, the documentary does an excellent job telling the stories of the ordinary people, engineers, NASA employees, journalists, astronauts, and families affected by the explosion. The use of archival video footage is excellent and the historical re-enactments are tasteful. Even folks highly knowledgeable about the episode will learn something new. I consider myself moderately informed about it, and I for one learned that Peter Billingsley (Ralphie from A Christmas Story) was at the launch as part of the Young Astronauts program.
The documentary does a good job explaining the proximate cause of the Challenger explosion as well. In brief, cold weather the day of the launch caused rubber O-rings on one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs) to fail, which caused exhaust gasses from the to leak out from the side of the rocket:
This exhaust plume led the main fuel tank to explode and the orbiter to break apart. Most tragically of all, the astronauts were still alive and probably conscious after the initial explosion. It is most probable that the astronauts died when the crew cabin hit the water at over 200 miles per hour several minutes after the explosion.
Beyond the proximate cause, the documentary follows the explanation of the distal causes of the accident endorsed by the Rogers Commission. Their hearings received extensive media coverage at the time, including Richard Feynman’s famous demonstration placing rubber O-rings in ice water, and their findings correspond largely to the public narrative that crystalized in the aftermath. The Rogers Commission blamed organizational malfeasance and faulted NASA middle-management for launching in unsafe conditions, a culture focused on “producing” shuttle launches at the expense of safety in the shuttle program, and ignoring warnings regarding the effects of cold temperatures on the SRB O-rings.
This narrative became widely accepted in the aftermath of the disaster. On the whole, the documentary portrays NASA managers as the villains in this story for gambling with astronauts’ lives. The sociologist Diane Vaughan calls this common…