On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger launched into the sky, with thousands of eyes from homes and schools across America watching in great anticipation. It was supposed to be the first time a private citizen — and not just anyone, but a school teacher, Christa McAuliffe — made it into space.
Only 73 seconds later, tragedy struck. The shuttle broke apart, killing all seven passengers on board, including five NASA astronauts, an engineer, and McAuliffe. It devastated their families, the school children tuning in from their classrooms, and numerous other spectators in the process.
Executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper, Netflix’s Challenger: The Final Flight revisits the tragedy that occurred that day in four parts. The opening episode introduces the Challenger crew members: 46-year-old commander Dick Scobee; 40-year-old pilot Michael Smith; 41-year-old payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, 39, Ron McNair, 35, and Judy Resnik, 36; and of course, 37-year-old New Hampshire social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe. It also dives into the creation of the U.S. Space Shuttle program, which launched its first crew into space just five years before the Challenger met its end.
The next episode focuses on Christa McAuliffe and her journey to become the first average citizen in space. As part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, she would teach a couple of lessons hundreds of miles from the earth, increase public interest in the Space Shuttle program, and inspire an entire generation of school children. Episode 3 explores the issues, launch delays, and ultimate demise of the Challenger. And episode 4 investigates what went wrong alongside NASA’s controversial response to the shuttle’s disintegration, in which the agency kept key details of the event hidden from the public.
The Final Flight spotlights interviews from a variety of subjects, from NASA employees who prepared for the launch to journalists who investigated the aftermath of the disaster. These voices help establish the tension surrounding the flight and shed light on what went wrong from the technical side of things (the O-ring seal in the right rocket booster failed, causing the fuel tank to fall apart) and the managerial one (NASA went ahead with the launch despite knowing the risks). While all these perspectives help explain what led to the disaster, the most poignant interviews come from the astronauts and family members who were close to Challenger‘s crew members.
Former astronauts reminisce about Challenger mission specialist Ellison Onizuka’s sharp sense of humor and love for Hawaiian food. Barbara Morgan, who was selected as Christa McAuliffe’s substitute on the Challenger and trained alongside her as part of the Teacher in Space Project, thinks back to the time McAuliffe baked her an apple pie just hours after they moved into apartments next to one another. June Scobee Rodgers recalls how her late husband, Dick, sang the love song “The Last Farewell” to her on the beach just days before his passing.
At its core, The Final Flight presents a moving legacy for the brave crew members who died in the U.S.’s most notable space tragedy.
Details like these make the crew’s ultimate demise even more affecting — especially for those of us who weren’t alive at the time of the event. And for everyone, including the now-grown-up kids who saw the Challenger fall to pieces live on TV, these reflections help us come to grips with the humanity and the tragedy of the event. The featured individual perspectives, in combination with the big picture angles, make The Final Flight feel complete.
While the docuseries is layered, it’s also visually pleasing, leaning fully into its ’80s aesthetic. Featuring songs like “Hold on Tight” by Electric Light Orchestra and reenactments from classrooms and conference rooms with clunky box TVs and dated clothing, it draws viewers deep into the time period. This is furthered by glossy camera angles and carefully selected archival footage, which help The Final Flight stand out from reflections on the Challenger disaster you might find in textbooks or through cable news specials. Because it has been covered so much before, the polished narrative isn’t just nice, but necessary to attract new viewers, especially those from a younger generation.
Sure, the docuseries sometimes gets caught up in the technical details of the shuttle or the cascading dissension at NASA a tad too long for those of us who aren’t science buffs. But at its core, The Final Flight presents a moving legacy for the brave crew members who died in the U.S.’s most notable space tragedy. Whether you remember where you were when the Challenger disaster occurred or simply want to look back upon it, The Final Flight is there to fill you in on all the details — even those that are more commonly overlooked.
Challenger: The Final Flight is now streaming on Netflix.