Netflix Challenger Doc: How The Filmmakers Found Redemption and Optimism From Tragedy

The four-part docuseries from Netflix contextualizes the Challenger explosion and memorializes one of NASA's most diverse flight crews.

Challenger The Final Flight
CHALLENGER - THE FINAL FLIGHT (L to R) The Challenger 7 flight crew: Ellison S. Onizuka; Mike Smith; Christa McAuliffe; Dick Scobee; Gregory Jarvis; Judith Resnik; and Ronald McNair in episode 4 of CHALLENGER - THE FINAL FLIGHT. Cr. Public Domain/NASA Photo: Netflix

The Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986 was one of America’s most visceral tragedies. In real time, millions of Americans, including school children across the country, witnessed the shuttle disintegrate from a solid rocket booster failure, claiming the lives of all seven astronauts on board. The mission was of particular national interest because a high school teacher named Christa McAulife was selected to become the first private citizen in space, leading to increased media attention and fanfare. 

Countless shows, documentaries, and books have covered all angles of the NASA mission gone horribly awry. Netflix’s new documentary series, Challenger: The Final Flight, stands out by telling the human stories behind the accident, including first-hand accounts from the decision makers at NASA and the astronauts’ families whose lives were changed irrevocably on the morning of January 28, 1986.

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The project hails from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions and executive Glen Zipper, and was co-directed by Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge (who won an Oscar in 2012 for Saving Face). Over a recent zoom call, Zipper, Leckart, and Junge told Den of Geek about their personal memories of the Challenger explosion. Zipper and Junge recall being pulled out of class and shown the shocking footage by their teachers. Leckart says he was young enough that nobody quite knew how to talk to him about the disaster. 

“This project for me personally was a way to try to understand something which actually was very deeply unsettling to me at a young age and actually shattered my own dreams about space and astronauts,” Leckart says. “That was my first experience of death, and it was a very strange way to come to terms with, “What does that mean, that they’re not coming home and they’re not coming back?” It’s an unsettling thing for a child to watch.” 

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Across its four episodes, Challenger: The Final Flight memorializes one of NASA’s most diverse flight crews and contextualizes the scientific and bureaucratic failures that led to the disaster. In the Q&A below, Zipper, Leckart, and Junge reflect on the emotional interview process and ultimately how they found a story of redemption and optimism borne out of national tragedy. 

Den of Geek: How did you decide on tackling the Challenger disaster as your next project?

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Steven Leckart: In 2015, we had finished our second project together. Glenn just said, “Well, I think our next project together should be something really personal to both of us, instantly personal.” The second he said “Challenger,” I said, “I’m in. That sounds fantastic.” Because I’m just old enough that I witnessed that moment in time in elementary school, but I’m also just young enough that I really never fully understood what had happened, and it was just a great opportunity to dive in.

Separately, Daniel and I had met around the same period of time when we started talking about Challenger. We were introduced through someone else in the doc community to try to work together. That didn’t wind up happening. By the time this project came back around and Daniel was suggested as my co-director on the project, we’d already knew each other and had wanted to work together. It was serendipitous.

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Daniel, did they drag you in kicking and screaming? 

Daniel Junge: No, none whatsoever. It’s a no-brainer when you have a meeting and the first thing they say is Challenger and you go, “I’m in.” Our first pitch was to Netflix and we felt pretty confident there and then that they were going to do it.

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I’ve done a lot of co-directions, but I think this one benefited from a lot of intense, vigorous discussions because it’s such a complicated thing to do a series like this. I think we both agree that had either one of us done it solo, it wouldn’t be as good as it is because of those spirited discussions and the fact that there’s a lot of moving parts here. There’s history, there’s science, there’s personal backstories, there’s politics, and there’s controversy. Balancing all those came from not just the two of us, but a whole team. It got heated at times, but I think for the better. It never did come to blows. 

Glen Zipper: Neither of them has ever got hit by the other, but that’s because I got between them and I got punched in the face a few times separating them.

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Steven Leckart: In all seriousness, joking aside, one of the things that was such a benefit to having a co-director… the interviews are so emotional, some of them, and we shot some of these interviews two on the same day. To have two directors able to jump in the chair was, I felt, really useful in some respects. You just sit with somebody’s pain and emotion and you’re just wiped. To have someone else there to step in and help break up the load was incredibly useful.

What did you guys look to achieve with Challenger that would set it apart? There are so many rich, interesting threads to pull on thematically. And how did you want to approach it from a visual standpoint?

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Once we were starting to figure out the structure, we started to talk about how we were going to capture the interviews. We knew it was going to be an archival heavy documentary, but we knew that it needed to feel big and cinematic, as far as the cameras.

Glen Zipper: Steven should really speak to the granular specifics of it, but I can set the table by saying it’s interesting, observing us talk about the series and the various interviews that we did. We keep slipping and calling it a film. It is a series, but to us, it really feels like a film that’s split into four parts.

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When we looked at all the other Challenger stories that have been told before, the other documentaries, there’s a storytelling reason that explains why this project is so different. But also, none of us had encountered a telling of the story that felt like a rich cinematic experience. That’s something we all agreed that we wanted to bring to the table, and I think something that Daniel and Steven did a wonderful job of executing on.

Steven Leckart: The first thing out of the gate, we started talking structure and story before we talked about execution, and we arrived at the four episodes. We knew where the set pieces were going to be. We knew we wanted to start on the day of the launch. We knew we wanted to end up episode three with the actual explosion and hold off on showing it.

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I remember Daniel and I were talking and I said, “I think we should shoot three cameras because I think we should go to camera, but use it very sparingly and only when we’re mostly talking post-explosion.” The idea was that you would live in one episode, two episodes, and then suddenly you would ratchet direct to camera and be super tight. Filmmakers would know what we were doing, but the average viewer would just feel like something changed, but they wouldn’t be able to put their finger on it.

Daniel agreed with that because it was an interesting premise, but then he said, “I think we should shoot a fourth camera and we should have this moving shot, this slider.”

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We wound up with this setup with four cameras, which I’ve never shot a doc with four cameras. It’s not full Wormwood where you’re really shooting the heck out of it, but I think it allowed us to play visually in a way that was really satisfying and interesting in the edit. Some of the sliders cut moments and monologues that, just by sheer chance, were phenomenal. I think that’s the direct result of two directors coming with very complimentary but different visions, and then looking at together how they all played out.

Netflix was great to trust us and give us the budget to do it. But to the earlier point, this had to be bigger and it had to be ambitious, and that also led us down the path of recreations and really trying to do that in a way that felt tasteful and interesting and cinematic. We shot a lot of stuff we didn’t quite work in the edit, and we had to be painstakingly honest with each other about, does this work? Does this not work? Why is this falling apart for us? But the stuff that made the cut, watching and rewatching it, I think it feels great. I think it looks great. I think it doesn’t pull you out of the moment.

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What aspect of Challenger were you guys most interested in exploring going in? And did the research and interviews take you to any unexpected places? 

Glen Zipper: The one thing that jumps out at me is in our early discussions around the project, we talked to people of our generation and the generation before us about their memories of the Challenger, and everyone has an indelible memory because it was such a traumatic event in our history. Everyone thinks they have a full understanding and knowledge of it. It’s very personal to them. Then we say, “Do you remember who the astronauts were?” Their answer would be, “Yes, of course we remembered all the astronauts are.”

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Then we’d politely say, “Can you name them?” They’d say, “Yes, there’s Christa McAuliffe, and then there’s…” And they trail off. They were embarrassed to realize that they didn’t know who these other astronauts were, and sometimes even shocked.

That gave us the creative impetus to want to tell a story through the perspective of these astronauts and their families. These were human beings with lives, passions, ambitions, talents, and people who cared about them. We’ve lived with that image of Challenger exploding for so many years that we become desensitized to it.

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What Steven and Daniel have done so well is they’ve reacquainted you, and in some cases acquainted you, with these characters. By the time we get to the accident in the third episode, that image takes on a whole new meaning to you. You’re invested with those seven souls who are on the Challenger, and when the inevitable happens, when that tragedy happens, it’s gut-wrenching in a whole other way.

Steven Leckart: I remember the conversation we had in which it was,”Okay, who are these other astronauts? Let’s look at them. Let’s start to unpack their histories. When did they come into the program? Who were they beforehand?”

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When we first struck upon this idea of [NASA Group 8 in 1978] and what they represented in terms of opening up space to women, people of color, multiple religions, and doctors and scientists, not just white fighter pilots. When we realized that we could thread the needle and tie the shuttle to that dream of opening space up for everybody, and then we made the connection of who wound up on the Challenger, and then of course the Challenger even opened the door further for Christa, it really felt like there was a very clear arc in continuation between that big idea.

I realized that whether you were alive or not, that is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago. I think people who are younger will hopefully identify and see how just amazing and inspirational that moment was. We’re now standing on the cusp of more space exploration. The idea that it’s not owned by one country, or one gender, and all of that is super important. I’m hopeful that the series, aside from the tragedy, reminds people of that.

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The biggest surprise for me watching the doc is how cooperative the NASA officials were, including ones in positions of leadership at the time. Could you tell me a little bit about what that process was like, requesting those interviews and ultimately asking some really, really hard questions?

Steven Leckart: We explained our vision for the series from the beginning, and it always came from a place of sincere curiosity as well as love for the space program in general. Our goal wasn’t to crucify NASA or the agency. We didn’t see this as a story of good guys and bad guys and were hunting for a villain. We already understood that the Challenger is very much a story about systemic dysfunction and bureaucratic organizations, and those people are put in very tough positions, oftentimes not by their own making and their own doing.

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We were very clear with people from NASA. This is what we’re out to accomplish and we want to hear directly from you. We made it clear that we were not going to be interviewing people who had studied it and written books, but didn’t live it. We just wanted them to be able to share their experience in an open and safe forum, and we created a space for them to tell us whatever they felt comfortable telling us. Ultimately, that’s what you see on the screen, is a very honest and sobering, as you put it, revelatory experience.

There isn’t necessarily any new information. The commission pretty much covered most of it, but it’s in the candor of the interviews you really start to feel that this story, although it was put to bed so many years ago, hasn’t necessarily resolved for some of these people.

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What was it like on the flip side of that? For the astronauts’ families it’s obviously such an emotional thing to talk about. Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like shooting those interviews, and being so close to people whose lives were so deeply affected by this?

Glen Zipper: I have done plenty of films on dark subject matter and tragic stuff. None of it has been this far in the past, so I think it was surprising to me how ever-present those emotions are for these subjects. These interviews were at least three hours. Some of them took all day. Question number three was, “Tell me about that day.” Often we wouldn’t get to that until hour two, hour three. I think at that point they were really ready for a watershed and really, I think, prepared to share.

Daniel Junge: I think that’s right. For the people who have done press before, they told us afterwards that it just felt different. Not different just because there’s four cameras, but different in terms of the tone and the tenor with which we conducted those interviews.

Then for people who have done very little media, I think they confessed and have confessed since then that doing the interview actually helped reconcile some feelings for them. I think at best, documentaries can be almost like a form of therapy in a way, and it’s free. You don’t have to pay for it.

Steven Leckart: But we have talked to some of the family members, or actually all of them who we interviewed, and the response we’ve received from them on the series has been overwhelmingly positive. Very few people at this point in time have seen the series. We don’t know what the public at large will feel, but I know for me, the sense of relief that I personally have, that they feel that we did the story justice and did right by them and their family members, that means the world to me. Whatever happens [when the doc releases on Netflix] and moving forward, at least we know that we did right by them.

Were there interviews you guys sought but didn’t get access?

Steven Leckart: There is one astronaut family that we were hopeful to include. They declined to be interviewed. We’re not exactly sure what was happening there, but we made every effort to basically bring that character to life through his NASA colleagues and friends. I don’t think if you watch the series you would feel like we’re missing anything.

The final episode is so powerful. The most emotional part for me was actually seeing the hopefulness come through towards the end, for what this meant for the space program, and what this meant to the families to see NASA return to space after the tragedy. Can you tell me a little bit about post-production and how you nailed down the message of the final episode? 

Daniel Junge: We always intended to end redemptively, not only because it’s just a bummer, but because it is ultimately a redemptive story. I think that you have to remember over hundreds of safe flights of the shuttle, most of them after Challenger, means they got some things right and they did some amazing stuff. We want you to get a sense of that both before Challenger and after that. But also when we were constructing it, sometimes you have to muscle things in post to make them feel a certain way, it just spoke. It was redemptive just watching it dry without music. It’s so clear.