'Challenger: The Final Flight' Review: Netflix docuseries explores the human cost of negligent science

'Challenger: The Final Flight' is a reminder that no one can rest on their laurels -- as NASA did at the time -- and everything, from the bottom-up needs to be checked and rechecked


                            'Challenger: The Final Flight' Review: Netflix docuseries explores the human cost of negligent science
(NASA/Netflix)

What is the human cost of development? Rather, what is the acceptable cost of scientific advancement? The process of innovation depends as much on failures as it does on successes and perhaps nothing is a greater testament to that than the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that saw the orbiter break apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard on January 28, 1986. For many, the incident is fresh in their minds, but for the generations that come after, the Challenger disaster is but a footnote in history.

Netflix's latest docuseries, 'Challenger: The Final Flight' serves to introduce (or reintroduce) everything that went on before the days of the Challenger explosion and everything that came after. Bu diving into the human elements of the Challenger Space Shuttle, the Netflix docuseries executive produced by JJ Abrams makes sure to show that science is not as intangible as we would like to believe. No matter how many calculations go into something, human error is always likely, especially when there is pressure to succeed.

For NASA, which had launched its Space Shuttle program in 1981, the successes of these flights were paramount. But success also meant it had come in the public sphere, after all, the organization could only go forward with public support and government funding. This could explain why NASA decided to get the "first private citizen" ready for a space flight -- one who was not an astronaut, but a regular person. On then-President Ronald Reagan's recommendation, the person to be selected was to be a teacher.

Among 11,000 applications, Christa McAuliffe was chosen to be the first non-astronaut in space, with fellow teacher Barbara Morgan, chosen as the backup for McAuliffe. McAuliffe's spirit shines brightly through the document as Morgan and McAuliffe's sister, Lisa Bristol speak about the vivaciousness of the teacher who was excited to go up into space. The docuseries also sheds light on the lives of the other crew members of the final Challenger flight: Commander Francis R Scobee, pilot Michael J Smith, mission specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnik, and payload specialist, Gregory Jarvis. 

The docuseries takes special care to involve the family members in talking about the Challenger disaster as well as the engineers who worked on the solid rocket boosters, who had warned NASA about the instability of the O-ring seals on the boosters in lower temperatures. The perspectives of Lawrence Mulloy and William Lucas -- the people who pushed ahead to clear the launch despite objections -- are also shown.

It is in one striking moment when Lucas says that there is a cost to development when he indicates that the United States had led the race to space because the country was willing to take chances. That statement does not, however, account for the fact that the O-ring problem was indicated years in advance, making the Challenger disaster less of an accident and more about negligence. 

It also goes to show that science is only as good as the humans behind them. More often than not, such accidents occur due to human error that is spotted but is ignored simply because of the complexities it would create for progress and capital. 'Challenger: The Final Flight' is a reminder that no one can rest on their laurels -- as NASA did at the time -- and everything, from the bottom-up needs to be checked and rechecked.

'Challenger: The Final Flight' is now streaming on Netflix.

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