CHALLENGER: THE FINAL FLIGHT Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal revisits that fateful day...

Space flight is, by its very definition, a risky proposition. It is something that NASA has learned the hard way across its now six decades of missions. Few losses have been as high profile as what occurred on the morning of the 28th of January 1986 with the Space Shuttle Challenger. The story of what happened that bright but cold January day, the road that led to it, and what followed has been a rich seam for dramatists and documentary makers to mine for nearly thirty-five years now. Netflix's recent documentary series Challenger: The Final Flight revisits those events putting it into context and exploring it from a whole slew of perspectives.

Perhaps it's the passage of three decades, the context of the Challenger disaster has become gradually lost with time, at least to anyone who is not a space history nerd (which I will happily confess to being). What the opening half of the series' four episodes do is re-establish it. From the decision to build the Shuttle in the wake of the Apollo moon landings to the recruitment of a new class of astronauts, those bright early years of the Shuttle program are clearly on display. As is the fact that with it flying so regularly, there was a need to bolster public interest after early flights, leading to the decision to let qualified civilians and eventually a teacher travel as a crewmember. And that problems were brewing behind the scenes with the technology at the heart of this remarkable flying machine. All the while, events, and decisions are laying the seeds for tragedy.

The latter half of the series can fit the description of "before" and "after." The third episode builds up the tension before the launch, with the completion of training, the media attention on teacher Christa McAuliffe, and the delays and concerns that finally culminated in disaster. The final episode deals with the aftermath ranging from immediate reactions to investigations and the tragedy's effects upon many of those involved. In some ways, these are the dramatic highpoint of the series, highlighting the strengths of it.

And let there be no doubt that Challenger: The Final Flight is well-made. Directors Daniel Junge and Steven Leckart (and the series' developers Steven Leckart and Glen Zipper) draw on a wealth of material. A large portion is of archival film, from NASA promotional material to IMAX footage from The Dream Is Alive, to video footage and news coverage of the Shuttle program and Challenger in particular. A fair portion of that footage will likely be familiar to experienced space documentary viewers, but even so, is put together appealingly when combined with limited recreation of unfilmed events such as the meetings and conference calls made in the overnight hours leading to the launch. Combined with a score from Jeff Beal that mixes orchestra with eighties electronic influences, plus an evocative opening title sequence from designer Charles Christopher Rubino and composer Charles Scott, and you get a retelling fo Challenger that's engaging for newcomers and a refresher for those familiar with the events.

One thing that Challenger: The Final Flight does have, which is new, is in-depth and intimate interviews with many of the players. With all the attention on Christa McAuliffe (whose sister features here in interviews), it has been easy to forget the six other human beings on the Shuttle that day. It's something the makers of this don't ever fail to remember, featuring extensive appearances by June Scobee Rodgers (wife of mission commander 'Dick' Scobee) and the other family and friends of the crew, whose emotional recollections of the events form the heart of the series. There are perspectives from fellow astronauts, including Robert Crippen and Frederick Gregory, and the engineers such as Brian Russell and Allan J. McDonald, who put up a fight, alongside NASA Resource Analyst Richard Cook, to draw attention to the problem that ultimately led to disaster. Perhaps most surprisingly, the members of NASA management who all but decided to launch, namely William Lucas and Lawrence Mulloy, are here, too, and their reflections on events (or lack thereof) are fascinating to take in. Together, they all help paint a portrait.

A portrait that ultimately shows that the Shuttle was a magnificent flying machine, but one sold on promises it could never deliver. And in the process of trying to, an entirely avoidable timebomb began ticking. If it hadn't been that day, it would have been another mission with a different crew. That fate and decision making led to a nation tuned in on a day in January when, as the series vividly recreates with a mix of playing in real-time archive footage and Beal's score, the dream shattered in the skies above the Florida coast.

Space flight is a risky proposition, but one where stupid risks are unnecessary. If only we listen and pay attention to them. That, and remembering the human drama underpinning it all, might be the most important lessons Challenger: The Final Flight imparts for the next generation of astronauts and those helping them soar into the heavens. 

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places. 

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