The Challenger: Researching the space shuttle disaster

Monday 18 March 2013, 10:59

Dan Parry Dan Parry Researcher

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On 28 January 1986, millions of TV viewers gasped in horror as an explosion destroyed the space shuttle Challenger.

The fireball that engulfed the spacecraft, just 73 seconds after launch, destroyed the lives of seven astronauts, among them teacher Christa McAuliffe.

The immediate demand for answers triggered a soul-searching process that ruined careers, rocked Nasa to its core and ultimately discovered a clear-cut flaw that some had known about before Challenger had even lifted off.

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The launch of Challenger: An unforgettable moment in American history

The painstaking journey of one man who, ignoring terminal cancer, searched for the answers that a shocked nation was waiting for, is explored in The Challenger, an ambitious new factual drama to be shown on BBC Two.

The real-life Challenger investigation involved an impressive array of experts. But since many of them were associated with powerful agencies (such as Nasa or the Air Force), a strong independent voice was needed.

This role went to maverick Nobel-winning physicist Dr Richard Feynman, (played superbly by William Hurt in the drama), who reluctantly agreed to swap the relaxed world of California academia for the furore of Washington politics.

As the film's researcher, I wanted to know Feynman's story. How did he accomplish his task, how did he cut through Washington's red tape and intrigue, and why did he take part at all?

Richard Feynman (William Hurt) Dr Richard Feynman was an eminent professor at the California Institute of Technology

Over two years, and working closely with executive producer Mark Hedgecoe and writer Kate Gartside, I built relationships with Feynman's family, (the man himself died in 1988) and with those directly involved in the investigation, especially Air Force general Don Kutyna and whistle-blower Allan McDonald.

As trust developed, the phone calls grew longer and the number of questions increased. But as is always the way, it was only when I was able to spend a few days in the States and meet everyone face-to-face that I could properly get to know people.

Integrity and a commitment to accuracy are critical, and it's hard to persuade someone of this if you're not looking them in the eye.

Only once you've done this can you ask the hard questions that will unearth the emotions and turning points that Mark and Kate would need when squeezing a story that unfolded over months into a 90-minute film.

I suppose this is the essence of the job, it's certainly one of the things I enjoy the most.

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'I have every intention of finding out what went wrong'

Feynman's books, and the transcripts from the investigation, only go so far. If you want to understand how someone stands up in front of their colleagues and says "These people were warned about the dangers but they launched the spacecraft anyway" then you have to spend a little time in their home.

In Allan McDonald's mountainside house in Utah, I joined him, his wife and a friend for lunch. We talked about kids, skiing, the weather. We left the difficult stuff for later.

It's good to take things slowly, build trust, wait for the story. Eventually we left the house, and during a sightseeing drive through the Rockies, Allan – picking his words carefully – recalled his long-held concerns over the basic design of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters.

Richard Feynman, General Kutyna and other commissioners standing and sitting at a table Examining the evidence: Richard Feynman and fellow commission members

But it was only when I crossed the mountains and spent a few days in Colorado with General Kutyna that a bigger picture emerged. Kutyna, every inch an elegant and distinguished senior officer, is a Vietnam fighter ace and former test pilot whose most recent job title was no less than Commander, Air Force Space Command.

I told him about McDonald's concerns. "Never mind that," he replied, "that shuttle was covered in ice. You got to ask yourself why did they launch?"

"Why did they launch?" I asked, slightly chastened.

"Damn good question," he replied. "Feynman wanted to know the same thing. I gave him a classified presentation at the Pentagon. Come down to the den and I’ll give the same to you."

General Kutyna (Brian Greenwood) General Kutyna (Bruce Greenwood) at a Presidential Commission press conference

Slightly in awe, I followed him to an office strewn with pictures of himself alongside Thatcher, Reagan and others, and began to take notes on an incredible story. 

This was the first we knew of this briefing, and Kutyna's revelations quickly came to influence the shape of our drama.

When Mark and Kate chose to recreate the briefing in a scene in the film, Kutyna further helped us with broad details about the room (a secure basement lecture theatre) and with general information about Pentagon security, the type of thing we would need when dressing the set.

Step by step, the drama came to explore an intriguing relationship as Kutyna nudges Feynman toward the dark truth underlying the explosion.

It's a story that embroiled McDonald and also astronaut Sally Ride – which we only came to realise following her passing in July last year – as hopefully you’ll come to discover for yourself, once you see the film. 

Dan Parry is the researcher on The Challenger.

The Challenger is on BBC Two and BBC HD on Monday, 18 March at 9pm.

BBC Archive Fun To Imagine: Watch the 1983 BBC series featuring the real Dr Richard Feynman.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Like many other people I remember the horrific loss of Challenger only too well. I have been very much looking forward to this, and your article has intrigued me even more ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Thanks Rosemary. I think perhaps the loss of Challenger stands out in many people's memories for the sheer shock of the disaster. For five years we had come to feel that the shuttle programme was as safe, almost, as air travel. Challenger was a cruel reminder of the dangers of rockets specifically and spaceflight generally. Consequently, the loss of Columbia in 2003, while still horrific, was perhaps less of an outright shock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    What an excellent programme! William Hurt was brilliant. Riveting viewing - and I've learned things I never knew before, too. Thank you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    William Hurt's portrayal of Richard was stunning. He sounded and looked exactly like Dr Feyman. The program was a credit to the BBC and Hurt deserves an Oscar or BAFTA for that. Well done BBC !

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    So why did the BBC do this then

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Why were the end credits on this excellent film run at double speed and then SHRUNK to an unreadable size? It was not actually possible to see the names of the people who had made the programme. Thee BBC seems to be as deeply defective as NASA sometimes. There is no excuse for this at all. Don't ever do it again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Must be the best tv drama I've seen for a very long time. Absolutely brilliant. William Hurt portrayed the scientist so well, and the whole thing was a reminder to us all how politics can influence top level investigations and that such inquiries must be totally inpartial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    This was a wonderful piece of drama. I can't avoid cliches as I really did watch it on the edge of my sofa. I didn't know it was a BBC piece - just thought it was a film that had passed me by and was wondering why it hadn't had any Oscar nominations!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Very good programme, but not one mention of Roger Boijoly, the whistleblower at Morton Thiokol who unsuccessfully tried to get the launch stopped.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The disaster of the Challenger was a shocking event. The whole world was appalled at the sudden and dramatic deaths, watched by millions. This drama was an excellent portrayal of the investigation into the reasons. I found it riveting, moving and was in tears at the end, thanks to William Hurt's wonderful acting. I never heard the whole story as told here before and can only say, who said science was dull.!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    An excellent program that did a good job of telling the story, as in the book where he described his experiences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Congratulations Dan Parry and your colleagues for a brilliant, gripping piece of drama. You guys earned your licence income and your new premises tonight. ironic that it should be shown the day that we witnessed the result of a so called "free" press refusing to be answerable to law - just in case we get a bad politicians in the future!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Well done to the BBC for reminding everyone of this tragedy. Its lessons must be heeded since they are relevant to almost any corporate adventure in any field - it must be questionable whether they were heeded properly in light of the subsequent Columbia tragedy.
    If anyone wants to immerse themselves in more of the detail, a good place to start would be a book titled The Challenger Launch Decision, by Diane Vaughan. Also much of the material and transcripts on both shuttle disasters are available in various archives on line. Read it all, and make your own minds up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    A great programme. Just a shame you only had 90 minutes to tell what is a very though provoking issue regarding engineering ethics. There is so much more story to tell about the Challenger disaster and would recommend anyone interested read Allan J McDonald's book.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    What an excellent programme, I remember when he explained what had happened back in the 1980's and a horizon programme that followed it up. He was such a brilliant character and an entertaining and clear writer, Thank you for the programme and the reminder that politics sometimes has to be challenged to get to the truth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    A fantastic dramatisation of events - well done to all those involved.

    I remember the chill I felt as a young high school student when we watched Challenger explode on the BBC news that day and again of that press conference at the end with the o-ring in the iced water. That was the first time I'd heard of R P Feynman - but later as a Physics undergrad I'd come to know his day-to-day work and also, through his memoirs including the basis of this drama "What do you care what people think?" a little of the man himself.

    Hurt was an excellent choice but so too was Bruce Greenwood.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I thought it was dreadful. The O-ring in ice demonstration occurred right at the very outset of the investigation not towards the end as implied by the show. "Dramatic licence"?
    And why no mention of NASA analyst Richard Cook? He was the true whistleblower of the O-ring problem. The documentary made it look as if Fenyman (and Kutyna to a limited extent) were the only ones involved in uncovering the truth. Oh look, Feynman's family were listed as advisors in the credits. What a surprise. Of course they want Prof Richard to look as good as possible, but omitting people like Cook, Boisjoly and many others was sheer dishonesty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    really enjoyed tonights show;seen something similsr, but without the Titan/NASA politics thing thrown in.
    Being a lead engineer myself in aerospace, i understand the technical and commercial pressures engineers are placed under today.
    well done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Wow who have thought the whistleblower was Sally ride, great documentary

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    Comment number 20.

    And since, everyone else is mentioning literary tomes regarding the Challenger disaster, why not read Richard Cook's "Challenger Revealed"? It is excellent but I don't think he proves 100% that the White House pushed for the launch on January 28th, 1986. Unfortunately the only real proof Cook is a "psychic" that advised Nancy Reagan on schedules that would mesh nicely with her astrological star chart, or some such mumbo jumbo.
    That part is best left alone. But Cook worked in NASA and had the reports of O ring failures in the summer of 1985. A short time after the space shuttle exploded (hours? days?) he had retrieved the report and eventually leaked it to the press.
    You wouldn't know any of this from the BBC show I have just seen.


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