The Challenger Disaster

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was a pivotal before-and-after moment in history. It’s a cliche, but still applies, to say that it’s a kind of event that gets imprinted like a photograph on your mind if you experience it firsthand. Sometimes, like an echo, the memory will be sparked by some random thought, or sound, or remark, and I will hear as clear as a bell the phrase from the CAPCOM (capsule communicator) audio transmission at the 68-second mark on the flight: “Challenger, go at throttle up.” Then it blew apart.

We know now that two rubber seals (O-rings) on the right solid rocket booster failed in the freezing temps that morning and 5000-degree gases escaping the hole became a blowtorch fixed on the external fuel tank, which was breached shortly thereafter, igniting the fuel inside, and causing the explosion. We also know that NASA was warned ahead of time this was a possibility and chose to launch anyway. 

Director Nathan VonMinden’s The Challenger Disaster takes us behind the scenes to the drama unfolding at the Morton Thiokol company in Utah in the hours before. Morton Thiokol designed and built the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters with the faulty O-rings.

Morton Thiokol designed and built the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters with the faulty O-rings.”

I love independent film, and The Challenger Disaster is an excellent example of a big accomplishment on a small budget (estimated at $175K by IMDB). It is practically a masterclass on getting bang for your buck. Every dollar is up on the screen, and there is no wasted motion.

However, a confession as well: throughout the film I found myself wishing the production value would suddenly scale up by a hundred orders of magnitude, and Tom Hanks would appear running down a hallway demanding to talk to someone at NASA, as he did in Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon.

One of the side effects of the low budget is that very few of the people/entities are named directly; one would assume to avoid legal entanglements. The whistleblower named Adam (Eric Hanson) in the film is probably meant to portray Bob Ebeling. The company he worked for is Morton Thiokol. It is distracting that there are no logos anywhere in the office. If you’ve ever been to a manufacturing facility, especially aerospace, especially government (NASA, Military) contractors, these people love giant signage and logos.

“…former LSU head coach Les Miles as a NASA program manager hell-bent on launching the Challenger.

The cast delivers, and they should, many of them you’ve seen before: Dean Cain from Lois and Clark, Cameron Arnett, Glenn Morshower, Garry Nation. Even the relatively unknown actors turn in praiseworthy performances (despite some early mugging and overacting, everyone settles into a nice groove as the film progresses).  

Look for former LSU head coach Les Miles as a NASA program manager hell-bent on launching the Challenger.

I suspect conversations and discussions like those in the film did happen. What boggles the mind is trying to imagine a mission program manager hearing a materials engineer telling him that the rubber in a seal had never been tested when it’s frozen and the NASA man concludes that lack of data is data and therefore it’s a risk worth taking to green-light the launch.

Worse: in this version of events the NASA manager asks him to prove with quantified data that the seal will fail. This is literally not rocket science: anyone who’s pulled Tupperware out of the freezer knows that plastics get brittle as the temperature drops. They actually have a state called glass-transition, which is pretty self-explanatory. How do you not take a look at the weather and move the launch to the afternoon when the temp goes up? Later that same day the temperature at Cape Canaveral went up to 48 degrees.

Bob Ebeling died in 2016, still feeling he had not tried hard enough to convince NASA to stop the launch. He carried that guilt to his grave.

My hat is off to VonMinden for creating a film that works so well for so little budget, and for bringing light to part of a 30-year-old story that isn’t as well known as the event itself but still just as relevant.

The Challenger Disaster (2019) Written and directed by Nathan VonMinden. Starring Dean Cain, Eric Hanson, Glenn Morshower, Brandi Price.

8 out of 10

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