The four-part docuseries on the 1986 Challenger disaster echoes "a lot of the discussions we’re still having—all about whether it’s better to be honest with the American people, or to preserve our myths and heroes," says Noel Murray. He adds: "What emerges—especially in the fourth chapter—is the story of a noble American institution that by 1986 had gotten into the habit of cutting corners, assuming that everything would work out okay, as it nearly always had before. For the most part, there was nothing insidious happening at NASA before the disaster. It was more that some well-meaning people had lost perspective, and had grown overly complacent. That said, the most alarming interview in part four is with one of the men who green-lit the Challenger flight, who acknowledges the multiple warnings back then of a possible catastrophic equipment failure but says he’d still make the same call today, because he considers the rewards of the space program worth recklessly risking human lives. (For anyone wondering why a documentary about something that happened in the ’80s is still relevant today… well, the level of callousness in that comment should give a good reason, given that it’s more than a little reminiscent of our recent pandemic debates.) The post-mortem passages of The Final Flight represent the series at its best. Like nearly every TV docuseries these days, this one is overlong, and broken up into too many parts. It could easily have been two tightly packed hourlong episodes, rather than three fairly shapeless ones that run around 40 minutes each followed by an excellent concluding one that runs around 50. But that last chapter is so moving—and at times enraging—that it justifies the whole project."
The Final Flight is about how NASA thought it was too big to fail: "What The Final Flight makes plain is that NASA’s determination to succeed in that quest ended up leaving the organization with an inflated sense of its own greatness," says Tim Grierson. "Early on the docuseries, the adrenalized strains of Neil Diamond’s 'America' play on the soundtrack as a space shuttle safely lands in the California desert in the early 1980s while well-wishers cheer and wave flags. Back then, NASA was like your favorite sports team, inherently infused with all that is righteous and good. NASA couldn’t possibly do anything wrong, because America never does anything wrong. That arrogance would years later set the stage for the Challenger tragedy, and The Final Flight does a good job, in a non-tawdry way, of building up a sense of dread as we learn how NASA overlooked or downplayed small malfunctions that had occurred during earlier launches."
The Final Flight moves the story from a tragedy into an outrage: The series, says Daniel D'Addario, "can be somewhat scattered, as if it doesn’t want to solely be seen as exposé. Its excavation of the social climate leading up to the fated final Challenger launch is intertwined with its claims of a deeply flawed launch, but the first element there is more interesting, too. That’s in part because, for a general audience, it’s made much easier to understand, as four fleet episodes are perhaps too little time to educate a viewer on rocket science. The degree to which NASA’s hand was or felt forced by a cultural shift away from fascination with space is a case made crisply at the center of a series that can grow fuzzy on its margins. The greatest irony of the series is that it arrives at a time in which our fascination with space onscreen has never been greater but our interest in real-world space exploration has faded out, a consequence in part of a generation seeing the dreams of a nation explode on television."
Challenger: The Final Flight directors do what good documentarians do: Directors Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge "contextualize a major moment in a way that clarifies it for people who weren’t alive when it happened and makes it more vivid for those who were," says Jen Chaney. "Piecing together archival material, old news footage, and interviews with relatives of the Challenger crew as well as engineers and others involved with the space shuttle mission, Challenger: The Final Flight unflinchingly captures the simultaneously ambitious and arrogant culture at NASA during the 1970s and ’80s as well as the sense of national pride and profound loss surrounding the Challenger’s mission."
Challenger: The Final Flight is powerful and comprehensive, built around a wealth of new interviews: "Though it probably leaves out some things that NASA obsessives would want to know, Challenger: The Final Flight provides an impressive amount of context to the disaster, the lives it claimed and the survivors left behind to pick up the pieces," says Daniel Fienberg. "It's dark and sad and infuriating, but I appreciated its lack of wallowing or frame-by-frame fetishizing. One thing Challenger: The Final Flight does especially well is position the space shuttle program in a way that younger viewers may not necessarily grasp coming in. It's a reminder of that window in the early '80s where launches went from special, communal experiences shared by the nation to being so run-of-the-mill that NASA had to figure out a strategy to generate enthusiasm and curiosity, starting with sending civilians — in the form of a pair of politicians — into space, and then mounting a nationwide search for the teacher-in-space competition that was won by New Hampshire's Christa McAuliffe."
Challenger: The Final Flight was intended to be villain-free: “There isn’t one villain,” says Steven Leckart, who co-directed the docuseries with Daniel Junge with J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper serving as executive producers. “If anything, the villain would be groupthink and systemic dysfunction. We knew from the beginning that this was going to be a complex story where there wasn’t a binary hero and villain.” Leckart adds: “We didn’t set out to crucify NASA. We read the entire commission report, and saw how the paper trail went back and how many voices there were in the room. Managing an institution like that is so complex."
The Final Flight wanted to emphasize the families because people who remembered the tragedy forgot the astronauts: “We said, you know what? We need to tell this story, but we need to tell the story from the perspective of the families,” says Zipper. “And we need to get the world reacquainted with these astronauts... They had a life, they had dreams, they had families who were affected by this. We wanted to also explore how the families took that tragedy and were ultimately able to transform it into something very positive, which again took the form of Challenger Center.”