"Challenger: The Final Flight," a new four-part docuseries currently streaming on Netflix, examines a tragedy that defined a generation and had a lasting impact on the future of science and space travel. In 1986, the Challenger space shuttle tragically broke apart 73 seconds after launch as millions of Americans — many of them schoolchildren — watched live on television.
This series, which is executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper, offers an in-depth look at one of the most diverse crews NASA assembled, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was selected to be the first private citizen in space.
"Astronauts, I always saw them walking with their helmets on and I didn't necessarily know what was behind the visor," director Steven Leckart told Salon. "So when we started, we asked ourselves, 'Who were all seven of these people?'"
To find out, Leckart and his co-director Daniel Junge spoke with the crew's surviving family members to help create a poignant and relatable portrait of the astronauts. They also examine the "fatally flawed decision process" and mechanical failures that led to the disaster, interviewing former NASA officials and engineers who worked on the failed booster engine and had repeated concerns about its safety.
Zipper and Leckart spoke with Salon about what inspired them to create this series, what the Challenger represented, and the ways in which the decisions that led to the tragedy are reminiscent of the "systemic dysfunction" that has underscored the pandemic.
Do you remember where you were the day of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster? If so, how did that impact you?
Steven Leckart: The genesis of the project was in 2015 when Glen and I were both talking about what we wanted to work on next together, because we've been working together pretty much since 2012. I remember us agreeing that it should be something very personal to both of us. You know, documentary filmmakers — sometimes you find subjects that you then become curious and excited about rather than starting with a place of genuine curiosity on a subject and then getting into it.
So Glen was the one who first said the Challenger and instantly I said yes, because I do have a memory. I'm just old enough to remember watching it in elementary school, but the teacher ran in and turned the television off and told us to go outside. When I got home, I don't remember talking about it with my family or watching it on the news. I just remember being confused and sad. I just didn't understand what had happened; it was really my first experience with death. I had not lost a loved one or even a pet at that point.
Glen Zipper: I'm a bit older than Steven. I think I was in seventh or eighth grade, and we weren't watching it live. I was in algebra class, and another teacher came running into the room and whispered in my teacher's ear. Then my teacher turned to the class and said, 'Something terrible happened. We're all going to go into the cafeteria and it's going to be hard to watch, but we're going to bring in the TV and you need to watch it because it's history unfolding and you need to participate in that.'
And similar to the opening scene of episode one of "Final Flight," a big old TV got wheeled in on a cart and the entire school watched it. It was perhaps the most dramatic thing I had experienced in my life up to that point in time. Exactly like Steven said. And it left an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life. It was a 30-year journey from there to tell this story.
In preparing for this interview, I came across another interview that you had done, Steven, and there's this quote that really stood out to me. You said, "From the beginning, we said that we only wanted to interview people who lived the history personally and had a first-hand experience." How did that guide the filming of the series?
Leckart: I started my career as a journalist in magazines — and I still consider myself a journalist — and, as you know, first-hand accounts and first-hand information, versus second- or third-hand, you can count on that, right? I think from a storytelling sense, we felt it would just make the series more personal and that every person we put in the chair, their opinion and emotional response would feel like it belonged, versus interviewing people who had nothing to do with the story, per se.
I think most documentaries, oftentimes, you see a talking head, as they're called, or an expert. That person has a lot of great information and they may be great storytellers, but they lack that personal connection to the material. In the case of the Challenger, a lot of the 'experts' who know the science weren't really anywhere around the story on a deep level, and we wanted to explore the people and the humans and the crew. The best way to do that would be to talk to the people that knew them, not just the people who have studied them.
Zipper: And it gave the series a reason for being. There's been plenty of Challenger documentaries in the past and some narrative attempts in storytelling. We've seen the revelations at the heart of how the tragedy happened. But one thing that occurred to both Steven and I, and also [co-director] Daniel Junge was that, despite the image of the Challenger disintegrating in the sky being so iconic, and having lived with it for so long, we've become desensitized to it. We'd ask people if that was all they remembered, and they'd say, "No, of course we remember more than that." Then we'd ask if they remembered the astronauts [and they'd say] "Of course we do."
And we'd politely ask them to tell us who the astronauts were, and they would say "No problem, there is Christa McAuliffe…" and they would trail off. They didn't know the names of any of the other astronauts, and if they don't know their names, they certainly don't know their stories. That really gave us a reason telling this story. It's not so much that we were going to uncover some new revelations as to how it happened, but what we were going to do was provide audiences with the revelation as to who these people were, and the next time they look at that horrible image — that horrible iconic image of the Challenger disintegrating — they're going to be able to associate it with seven human beings who had lives and families and dreams and people who love them.
I really appreciate the incredibly personal nature of the series. But I was also drawn to how, on a macro-level, you laid out how NASA had selected this group of astronauts from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and how this was going to be a defining moment for diversity in science and space travel. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Leckart: From the beginning, I don't think we knew that was a part of the story. I was too young at the time to know about the Class of '78 being a big deal. By the time I became aware enough of the shuttle, I was just captivated by the thing itself. Astronauts, I always saw them walking with their helmets on and I didn't necessarily know what was behind the visor. So when we started, we asked ourselves, who were all seven of these people?
Judith Resnik, one of the first women and the first Jewish person to go to space. Then Ronald McNair, who was one of the first African Americans to go to space. Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American to go to space.
I don't know if it was intentional that they wound up on the crew of the Challenger with Christa; NASA is not known for really putting out much information about why astronauts are selected and assigned to different missions. But it enabled us to make the Challenger about something bigger, and the shuttle program about something bigger.
And to Glen's point about our decision not to show the explosion until you knew who the people were, that also tracks to what they represented and what the crew represented. So when that shuttle explodes and we see that horrible moment, it's not just the death of seven Americans, it's not just the death of seven astronauts, it's the death, in a way, of hope and optimism for the future.
We also saw the relevance today. You know, we finished the series before the summer unfolded the way it did, but as we were developing the series there was plenty of unrest in the country, as well as a movement towards multiculturalism. So we knew we were not making the series in a vacuum, even though we don't specifically draw a clear line. In our interviews, we wanted to keep you in the past, but also look at it through the lens of today.
You also speak with some folks who were actually in the control room the day of the disaster. I was curious — from a documentary filmmaking perspective — if there was any difficulty in getting them to open up in front of the camera?
Not once people were in the room and in the chair. By the time you see that person in the chair, we've spent hours with them. So the more difficult process, at first, was getting a hold of these people and getting them on the phone. They were all over the country, so just getting some people on the phone took weeks. Then once they would get on the phone, it would take hours and multiple calls, in some cases, to get them to participate.
But effectively, once we got a person on the phone, we got them to agree to sit down. And I think part of the reason they agreed was that we had expressed the very, very clear sincerity of our vision — to not just explore the tragedy and the mistakes that were made, but we wanted to endeavor to show how NASA picked itself back up, and show that those astronauts didn't die in vain.
We also talked at length with everyone about what our hope for the first episode would be, that we would spend a lot of time building up what the shuttle was and just how amazing it was. I think that allowed people to buy into the idea that it would be different. We were going to approach this story from a very sincere and very real place, as opposed to finger-pointing.
I was not surprised by how intimate our interviews wound up being, but I think in totality, it is overwhelming to see just how intimate they feel.
Glen, anything you'd like to add to that?
Zipper: Nothing other than to compliment Steven and Daniel. They're incredibly disarming filmmakers and I wasn't surprised that they were able to get that level of intimacy, honesty and connection. It really does play through in the interviews and some of the choices they made for their interviews was quite interesting.
One specific one was Peter Billingsley, who we noticed in going through some of the archival material. I think we first noticed in a photo, looking at the observation stands, 'That kid really looks like the kid from 'A Christmas Story.''
Peter Billingsley, it turns out, was the child ambassador for NASA. Steven and Daniel reached out to him and can speak to this better than I can. I think he was initially hesitant, but once he came in and agreed to the interview, it was one of the most powerful conversations I've ever been witness to. In addition to his personal connection and being an eyewitness to it, he's sort of a proxy for Generation X, because he was us and he was there. To see the story from an outsider from someone that wasn't an engineer or an astronaut or a family member, but was someone we all know and identify with, was really a remarkable choice.
Leckart: Yeah, that conversation was a good example of [a source] being skeptical at first, but willing to listen. He asked a couple of questions and ultimately landed on, 'OK, listen. I've never talked about this publicly.' It's not something he had been eager to do because, you know, going back into the sort of halls of your memory to something so tragic and painful is not exactly a great thing to do.
But he said that he trusted our vision and us. Then the next thing he asked was how much time we needed. You know, he's a director and a producer and very busy, and we initially suggested a half hour. And he said, "Oh, we're going to need at least two hours because I've never talked about this and I suspect that when we get into it, a lot of things will come out of me that I'm not expecting and I just want to know that if we do this, we'll have enough time to really properly get through it."
It was a very emotional interview.
It's worth noting all the interviews were incredibly emotional, especially the family members of the crew who we've maintained relationships with. You know, to sit with them and get to know them and sort of feel their pain — but also to feel the love they still feel for their family members. It weighed on us. There were a lot of tears on the crew as well.
I just remember traveling through 2019 — going motel to hotel and crying in my room alone. Crying on the airplane, crying in the car. Not necessarily bad cries, but just the emotion of what we were trying to achieve and how close we were getting to the story.
Related to the emotional heft of the story — I feel like this would have been deeply poignant even pre-pandemic, but watching it in the middle of everything happening right now, I feel like it takes on additional resonance. Has it made you think about it differently, or do you think people are responding to it differently, given the current reality?
Leckart: Absolutely, I mean, I look back to a kind of funny moment in the edit, which is we were making a scene about Mike Smith sneaking out of quarantine and we had a very long discussion about whether people would know what quarantine was. Do we need a character to explain what quarantine is?
I've seen people remarking about it on Twitter. One commenter also spotted a scene with Christa where she's riding her bicycle in Florida next to Greg Jarvis and she says, "Stay away from me, I'm in quarantine." And she specifically states six feet. So that is taking on new meaning now that we are all doing social distancing. Beyond those specifics — and Glen can speak to this as well —I think we're living through a moment in time where systemic dysfunctions and the difficulties of being in a big bureaucratic system are apparent.
With what happened with the Challenger, this big organization had a big, big, difficult challenge ahead of them, and they unfortunately mismanaged how to communicate all these issues and run the risk. So, we're seeing that play out today as well.
Zipper: I could add a slightly optimistic view to that, which is to overstate the obvious. In addition to this systemic dysfunction we're suffering through, we're also at an incredibly divisive moment in our history. When you look back to the Challenger launch, before the tragedy, and you look back to the moon landing and our collective fascination and imagination for space, it's something that has brought us together like nothing else. It's in our DNA, the desire to explore, to go further and deeper. And if there's some part of this documentary that can remind people of that, remind people of what we share, what we have in common, what inspires us collectively as a nation — that would be a remarkably pleasing result, because we're at a time right now when we need to be reminded of the things that we share and hold in common.
"Challenger: Final Flight" is now streaming on Netflix.