MYSTERY WIRE — Many Americans have vivid memories of Jan. 28, 1986.
That was the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded over a chilly Florida, just seconds after liftoff. School children across the country had tuned in to see Christa McAuliffe become the first teacher in space.
Steven Leckart has returned to that dark day as co-director of the four-part Netflix documentary series “Challenger: The Final Flight,” executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper. It premieres Wednesday, Sept. 16.
The series approaches the disaster less like a post-mortem and more like a drama. It explores NASA history and the lives of the seven lost astronauts, why the accident occurred and the inquest that followed.
Zipper and Leckart conceived of it in 2015 while looking to make something personal. Both had seen the disaster as boys but could only remember the name of one astronaut aboard Challenger: McAuliffe. Who were the other six?
The more they dug, the more they found extraordinary people: Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space and Ronald McNair was the second African American. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman
Months after the disaster, the cause was revealed: O-ring seals failed, causing leaks in the right booster rocket. An investigation found some workers had warned NASA about the danger of launching Challenger because the O-rings grew brittle in cold weather. But NASA was under pressure to keep to its ambitious flight schedule and the risk was deemed acceptable.
“The thing that I went into this looking for, I wasn’t sure that we’d find it. But I had a suspicion we might. Was there a mustache-twirling villain somewhere at the center of the story? And there isn’t,” said Zipper.
The series airs just as space exploration has returned to America’s consciousness. In May, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched astronauts into orbit from home soil for the first time in nearly a decade. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic also plan trips to space.