Tonight: The Challenger Disaster on Science and Discovery Channels

Science Channel/BBC/Patrick Toselli
Science Channel/BBC/Patrick Toselli / Science Channel/BBC/Patrick Toselli

Space fans, set your DVRs! The Challenger Disaster premieres tonight—Saturday, November 16 from 9-11pm ET/PT. It's airing on both Science Channel and Discovery Channel at the same time.

When I heard there would be a movie about the Challenger disaster, I was intrigued—I assumed it would be another documentary, explaining O-rings, launch temperatures, management issues, and so on. (I have been mildly Challenger-obsessed since the day it blew up, and more so after studying the disaster in college.) But when I heard the movie was a drama starring William Hurt as Richard Feynman?! I was hooked.

The Challenger Disaster is Science Channel's first drama. It covers the investigation into the catastrophic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, when all seven crew members died shortly after Challenger lifted off. I remember watching on TV as the craft burst apart, leaving twisting trails of smoke. After the disaster, President Reagan created the Rogers Commission to determine why Challenger failed.

Chairman Rogers (BRIAN DENNEHY). Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel/BBC.

The Rogers Commission and its report were a huge deal, partly because of tensions within the commission itself. Chairman Rogers and physicist Richard Feynman butted heads, and Feynman ended up writing his own appendix to the report, in which he detailed problems with the management culture at NASA. Feynman opened with this little zinger (emphasis added):

It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?"

Feynman also wrote about the experience in his book, What Do You Care What Other People Think? In The Challenger Disaster, we see a dramatization of that work—a reasonably faithful record of what happened, but employing dramatic license to add tension here and there. The movie is interesting both for newcomers and people who are familiar with the story, though the latter might find Hurt's portrayal of Feynman a little more sober than what we might expect.

(L-R) General Kutyna (BRUCE GREENWOOD), Chairman Rogers (BRIAN DENNEHY), Sally Ride (EVE BEST). Photo courtesy of Science Channel/BBC/Patrick Toselli.

The Challenger Disaster deals with a grim, technical topic without getting mired in the grimness nor the technical bits—but it does give us enough of each to understand what's happening. The most interesting parts of the story are when we come to understand the politics of the situation. In those moments, we see the tension between Feynman's scientific instincts and the political maelstrom that surrounds him. The man had guts. The weakest moments are the repeated (and frankly ham-fisted) nods to Feynman's cancer. It's hard to go ten minutes in this movie without another reference to Feynman's mortality and his refusal to accept it; while this is probably largely true, it plays on the screen as hero worship. But all in all, this is a terrific movie, particularly for a TV movie. Tune in tonight.

A companion documentary (that I have not yet seen) airs on Monday, November 18 at 10pm ET/PT on Science Channel. Entitled Feynman: The Challenger, it covers Feynman's life and work, including his involvement with The Manhattan Project. I'll be tuning in for that one too.