Netflix’s ‘Challenger: The Final Flight’ Takes You Inside the Infamous NASA Disaster
It was the trauma that defined a generation—and Executive Producer Glen Zipper, who was 11 years old at the time, remembers it vividly.
It might seem strange to some that Glen Zipper, the Oscar-winning documentarian who created Netflix’s adorable docu-series Dogs, chose to tackle the Challenger explosion as his second project for the streaming giant. But in an interview with The Daily Beast, he said both have been passion projects for him—even if their subjects are different as can be.
Challenger: The Final Flight, which Zipper executive produced, debuts on Netflix Wednesday and details the disaster that defined a generation. Before the tragic loss of seven astronauts in 1986, everyone thought that NASA could do anything. (NASA, the doc suggests, seemed to think that perhaps more than anyone.) It was the first shuttle voyage that included a non-astronaut, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe—all to make the case that in the future, space travel would be as frequent and casual as taking a commercial flight on Earth.
Zipper was 11 years old when the explosion happened, and describes it as “one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.”
“I was in math—algebra class,” he told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “I’ll never forget.”
The entire school was rushed into the cafeteria to watch the disaster unfold. “They made us watch,” Zipper recalled. “As painful, as traumatic as it was, they knew that history was happening [and] we needed to see it and we needed to experience it.”
Challenger: The Final Flight unspools the events leading up to the disaster—and engineer Bob Ebeling’s infamous concerns that the shuttle could explode due to compromised “O”-rings in the solid rocket boosters Morton-Thiokol Inc. produced—in four episodes, each running from 45 minutes to an hour. Families of the late explorers detail what they were like and how the aftermath of the disaster affected them.
“There's so much story around that story,” Zipper said. As he and fellow E.P. Steven Leckart developed the project, “We’d ask people if they remembered Challenger—of course they always did. But the funny thing was, they always thought they remembered it better than they actually did. ’Cause we’d say to them, ‘OK, do you remember the astronauts?’ And they would say, ‘Yes, of course.’ ‘OK well who were the astronauts?’ It was Christa McAuliffe, and they’d trail off.”
“We said, you know what? We need to tell this story, but we need to tell the story from the perspective of the families,” Zipper said. “And we need to get the world reacquainted with these astronauts... They had a life, they had dreams, they had families who were affected by this. We wanted to also explore how the families took that tragedy and were ultimately able to transform it into something very positive, which again took the form of Challenger Center.”
As seen in the documentary, Bob Ebeling and at least a couple other Thiokol engineers carried guilt over what happened for the rest of their lives. By the time Zipper and his team traveled to Utah to shoot the doc, Ebeling was already dead—but his family met with the team in what Zipper described as “one of the most moving, powerful experiences I ever had.”
As with most Netflix docs, The Final Flight could probably have been at least an hour or two shorter—but for those too young to remember the devastating incident themselves, it’s a great, thorough primer on the events leading up to the explosion and the investigation that followed. Those who followed the story closely at the time might find the story a little less enthralling, save for interviews with a couple key NASA officials about how they view their decisions in retrospect.
While working on the project, Zipper was struck by the lack of a clear antagonist.
“You presume that there’s a mustache-twirling villain somewhere in this story,” Zipper said. But once the team dove in and did their research, they determined that wasn’t the case. “These are all incredibly talented people that were passionate about the shuttle, and passionate about their jobs, and working towards a common goal,” Zipper said. “But there was so much pressure.”