Challenger: The Final Flight—Humane Look at a Disaster

Challenger: The Final Flight Netflix documentary

Launching on Netflix in September 2020, J.J. Abram’s thoughtful documentary is a look at one of the worst spaceflight disasters in history.

Challenger: The Final Flight Documentary

There have been a lot of documentaries and even a film about this disaster on January 28th 1986. So, what could Abrams bring to this?

Well, he humanises the story. Seven astronauts died when the space shuttle disintegrated under aerodynamic stresses (it didn’t explode), but the focus is usually on Christa McAuliffe

She was a 37-year-old teacher. Ronald Reagan’s Teacher in Space programme in the early 1980s set in motion 11,000 applications in the US. And McAuliffe won out.

A big PR stunt to try and win over the American public about space travel, many schoolchildren watched the event live on that day in 1986. Obviously, it was a colossal disaster for NASA.

But also on board were many other brilliant individuals:

  • Francis R. Scobee—Commander
  • Michael J. Smith—Pilot
  • Ronald McNair—Mission Specialist
  • Ellison Onizuka—Mission Specialist
  • Judith Resnik—Mission Specialist
  • Gregory Jarvis—Payload Specialist

All of them brilliant and with storied careers. We took a particular shine to Resnik, an intellectually brilliant lady who was only 36 at the time.

She just seemed very cool—super smart, but with a love for rally driving.

She could also bat off atrociously sexist interviewers with cool aplomb (there are several cringeworthy moments in the documentary with male interviewers hitting on her live on air).

As did the likes of Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka—NASA’s diversity plans set many firsts with non-white Americans heading into space.

Abrams takes us through each of their backstories, who they were, and what they were hoping from Challenger’s 10th mission. Several had already been into space.

Simultaneously, he explores NASA’s space programme and the relentless push to get more shuttles into space.

Often behind schedule and cutting corners, the documentary builds up inexorably towards the inevitable.

Ultimately, troublesome O-rings and freezing temperatures put Challenger in a dangerous situation. Engineers flagged up the likelihood of disaster. And NASA’s managers pushed ahead anyway.

Teacher Barbara Morgan (who did go into space in 2007) was the backup choice to Christa McAuliffe.

She watched the event unfold live—here you can see her reaction upon realising something had gone wrong with the launch. An eerie video.

Challenger: The Final Flight is available on Netflix. There are four episodes, with the final one examining the business and political fallout of the disaster.

Left untouched in the documentary (thankfully) are the ridiculous conspiracy theories that have inevitably sprung up.

Some halfwits out there have decided it was all a hoax (of course) and the seven astronauts are all alive and well. Really quite bizarre how people can be this thick.

Anyway, what we feel the documentary does do is highlight the humane nature of the disaster. The seven lost lives.

As well as the damage done to the NASA space programme, which was pumped up with a lot of patriotic hubris.

With the Mars missions and other deep space travel attempts set for the rest of this century, we can’t help but worry there may be more disasters on the way.

Space travel is exceptionally difficult. Just getting to Mars a near impossible undertaking. Why go?

Well, so humanity may eventually spread its reach across the universe and survive long-term.

Whether you think that’s achievable or not, its pioneers such as the Challenger crew who’ll always have a place in history.


  1. I only vaguely remember the Challenger disaster (I was only six at the time), so anything I say resembling an answer to the question “Where were you?” is highly suspect. I have memories of being in my elementary school’s auditorium, but that could’ve been another event. Watching the runner up’s reaction was chilling. I will definitely check this series out.


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