Landing Wednesday on Netflix, the four-part docuseries "Challenger: The Final Flight" details the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. Created by Steven Leckart and Glen Zipper and produced by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot imprint, the series is an incredibly illuminating depiction of the lead-up to the disaster and its aftermath. While it could be especially educational for younger generations who don't have a full understanding of the impact of this tragedy, this riveting and revealing series has a wide appeal for all audiences.
In four efficient episodes, "Challenger: The Final Flight" illustrates the space program's importance as a symbol of national pride, as well as NASA's front-facing efforts to diversify the organization. With a focus on the space shuttle as a groundbreaking reusable spacecraft, the promise of civilian space travel seemed imminently tangible, especially with the high-profile selection for "the first teacher in space," to travel aboard the Challenger and offer lessons. Christa McAuliffe was selected, and her training and preparations for the flight were highly publicized as a promise of a new frontier in space travel.
"Challenger: The Final Flight" is a thorough and unflinching examination of the disaster, humanizing each victim and delving into detail about the repeated warnings NASA received about the integrity of certain space shuttle components before pressing ahead with the launch. The series captures the gravity of the mistakes made and the human toll in terms of loss of life, as well as the trauma and grief sustained by those connected to the disaster. It's a fascinating series.
For further viewing on the subject, there are, of course, many space exploration movies and films about NASA that are beloved favorites, like "Apollo 13" (on the History Channel Vault app or a 99-cent rental on Amazon) and even newer classics like the entertaining "Hidden Figures," about the African American women at NASA in the 1960s whose computational skills helped launch John Glenn (on FX Now or $3.99 iTunes/Amazon digital rental).
But "Challenger: The Final Flight" strikes a different tone, one that's more thoughtful and introspective about the human cost of pushing forward in the space race, what it means nationally and what it means on an individual scale. That was the tone filmmaker Damien Chazelle struck in his 2018 film "First Man" (on Max Go, Direct TV, or $3.99 digital rental on Amazon), a biopic of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) that's a melancholy rumination on what it means to be the first person to step onto the moon, and the incredible toll that it takes on a man and his family.
Another deeply introspective film about space travel is the moving documentary "The Last Man on the Moon" (free with ads on Tubi, or a $2.99 rental on YouTube, Vudu, Google Play). Mark Craig's portrait of astronaut Eugene Cernan unearths a surprising sense of spirituality in space travel. Those themes are echoed in the unfairly maligned "Lucy in the Sky," Noah Hawley's experimental take on the Lisa Nowak story, exploring the effect that space travel has on a psyche. That's on HBOMax, and Natalie Portman's performance is not to be missed.
You can't go wrong with Philip Kaufman's epic 1983 film "The Right Stuff" ($2.99 Amazon and Fandango rental, or $3.99 rental on other apps), based on Tom Wolfe's book about the Mercury Seven, the first group of pilots selected to fly spacecraft during the nascent days of America's space program. Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1983, it scooped up four Academy Awards, and it's on the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress so you might as well watch it. Plus, it's a blast to boot.