The Challenger film moves emotions around

  • In this 1985 photo, Concord High School teacher Christa McAuliffe rides with her children Caroline, left, and Scott during a parade down Main Street in Concord. JIM COLE / AP

  • The NASA ground team on Jan. 28, 1986. NASA

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/17/2020 4:26:07 PM

For me, sadness and anger double teamed my thoughts as I watched the newly released Netflix documentary series on the Challenger disaster 34 years ago.

In Challenger: The Final Flight, you’ll see Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher at Concord High School, move through months of testing to beat 10,000 candidates and be named the first ordinary citizen with the extraordinary chance to reach space.

You’ll watch a grainy video from 1985 of the parade downtown, held in her honor, with Apollo Travel service in the background, reflecting a different time.

You’ll see her students back home, in the school cafeteria and auditorium, and some even at the launch site, cheering and waving and honking noisemakers as blast-off neared on that cold morning, Jan. 28, 1986.

But included are old memos and updated opinions, plus evidence that says Christa and her six crew mates died unnecessarily. Someone calls it manslaughter.

The sadness pivots, to anger, because defects in equipment had been discovered long before the Challenger exploded. Congress and the president and NASA were desperate for a feel-good story, wanting all systems to go after two delays.

Pressure to launch hovered like the icicles, one and two feet long, that clung to the bottom of Challenger that morning, clear evidence that lift-off was dangerous. NASA’s public relations machine was firing on all cylinders, though, making sure the public knew that one of the crew, a citizen, not a professional, was riding the Shuttle.

But officials were talking, behind closed doors. And, later, they scrambled to minimize blame, also known as a coverup.

Consider this pre-flight memo that was never meant for public consumption: “Flight safety has been, and still is being compromised by potential of the seals, and it is acknowledged the failure during launch would certainly be catastrophic.”

Said another note, simply, “HELP! This is a red flag.”

They were referring to the O-rings, ¼-of-an-inch thick, 40 feet long, that sealed the rocket boosters. They were flawed, NASA knew from past flights, singed by fire, brittle from the cold.

“It was frustrating that even though we understood we could have a catastrophic failure, NASA wanted to have an increased number of launches,” says one official during a recent interview. “So every launch became nerve-racking to me. My stomach churned a bit because I did not know how those O-rings would perform.”

Maybe the crew knew about these concerns. But it’s doubtful that Christa did. Nor the public.

We were fed the good stuff, and we see this on video. President Bush announcing that Christa had been selected. Stories and interviews showing Christa’s breezy personality and dedication to her profession, and the way she lived life, with a bounce in her step.

She appeared on the Today show, telling Bryant Gumbel, “Space flight today really seems safe.”

The sadness grows as Challenger returns to Concord High, showing students soaring with pride and then plummeting from horror, all in a matter of moments.

The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. Around here, the vision of thick, white smoke heading in opposite directions remains haunting.

So do the words that followed, from the PA system at Cape Kennedy: “Obviously a major malfunction.”

Then, the investigation returns, pulling from the viewer anger after a sustained period of sadness.

We hear that NASA headquarters ordered officials at Mission Control to stay in their seats. No bathroom breaks, no phone calls.

We hear that the solid rocket boosters and seals had shown signs of erosion before Challenger’s launch. We hear important people say that clearing the launch pad while traveling the length of 85 football fields per second was a bad idea if questions about solid rocket boosters and O-rings remained.

We hear that the president and NASA worried about feeling embarrassed, and we hear that an investigative body, led by a Ronald Reagan ally, screamed conflict of interest.

People lied, avoiding the bottom line in this case: It was cold that morning in Florida. Freezing, in fact, and O-rings are compromised when it’s cold.

The anger, mellowed with age but still evident, comes from wives and family members, all of whom had expressed confidence in NASA and the space program.

No manned flight had yet resulted in a death. We had landed on the moon, and saved Apollo 13, bringing that crew back safely after a malfunction had scrubbed the moon landing.

So NASA, arrogant, some say in the documentary, rolled the dice, betting on the lives of seven people.

The daughter of an engineer involved in the Challenger flight says her father had said before liftoff, “I don’t care who you tell, the shuttle is going to explode.”

That was back in the ’80s, and the astronauts’ wives, shown during recent interviews, held nothing back.

Said one wife, “To learn that there were managers that allowed this space craft to take off knowing full well the risk, I was tremendously angry and unable to forgive people who made such a bad decision.”

Said the wife of mission specialist Ronald McNair, “They knew something was not right. They didn’t consider human life, and the safety and the effects it could have on a family.”

Christa’s husband, Steve McAuliffe, is conspicuously absent from the film. Their children, Caroline and Scott, are shown in a convertible, riding with Christa in the parade on Main Street.

We got a glimpse of Steve shortly after one of two postponed launches due to weather.

“I’d be much happier if it went up when everyone thought it was perfect,” Steve says, “than they go up on a chance basis.”

Steve then laughs. Not a funny laugh. A nervous laugh. He’s never revealed his feelings toward what happened 34 years ago, suggesting that he’d rather say nothing than point an angry finger.

His wife was scheduled to teach in space, inspire her students, inspire the world. She was chosen, for this moment in history, as the face of women, teachers, adventurers, dreamers.

During one scene, Christa is shown receiving an apple from the close-out crew, shortly before boarding Challenger. Then she lifts off, intent on teaching her students and the rest of us a lesson.

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