Science Channel’s ‘The Challenger Disaster’: A physicist’s courage and a chilling reminder

Hank Stuever
TV critic November 15, 2013

“The Challenger Disaster,” starring William Hurt as the contrarian physicist who helped a presidential commission discover the rubber O-ring failure that caused the January 1986 space shuttle explosion, is Science Channel’s first experiment in dram­atic filmmaking.

Produced by the BBC (which aired it earlier this year), the film is an appropriately somber and smoothly told account of the Washington politics and cross-agency obfuscation that nearly derailed the commission’s investigation into the disaster, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

Drawing largely from the late physicist Richard Feynman’s memoir (titled “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”), “The Challenger Disaster” readily admits in an opening disclaimer that there’s been a light touch of spackle here and there in the interest of narrative flow.

Some scenes are imagined or condensed from what really happened, including, I am compelled to point out, a real departure from the Dorothy Hamill-like bowl-cut that astronaut Sally Ride (played by “Nurse Jackie’s” Eve Best) was sporting at the time, when she served with Feynman on the commission.

As Feynman, it takes the workmanlike Hurt a little too long to shuffle through the slate of go-to moods and characters he’s played already, but he eventually lands on a unique and compelling take on the man. Feynman was a popular professor and Nobel laureate whose work on the first nuclear bombs left him, we are told here, with a permanent ambivalence about classified secrets and the potential danger in haste.

As the commission first convenes, “The Challenger Disaster” portrays Feynman as a rogue who is willing to press a question past the point of Beltway protocols. Not wasting any time (because he and his doctor know he’s dying from cancer and kidney failure), Feynman’s soon off to Florida and Alabama in defiance of the commission’s chair (Brian Dennehy as William P. Rogers), poking around labs and making rocket scientists uncomfortable.

Feynman forges an unlikely but beneficial friendship with a forthright Air Force major general on the commission (Bruce Greenwood as Donald E. Kutyna), which leads him to a line of inquiry about the solid rocket boosters.

Eventually we get to that moment some may still remember, when, before his colleagues and a curious nation, Feynman dunked a piece of rubber in a glass of ice water to show how poorly it would have performed on that frosty morning at Cape Canaveral.

Frostiness is also an issue for the film, which prefers technical mysteries over the emotions that followed the disaster. Still, I like the idea that Science Channel might make more movies like this. Some of the most compelling stories of conflict and resolution, after all, come down to basic chemistry and physics.

The Challenger Disaster

(two hours) airs Saturday at 9 p.m.
on Science Channel.

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