Monday, November 18, 2013

Movie Review: The Challenger Disaster

This was a TV movie that was broadcast this past Saturday evening on both the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel as well as earlier this year on the BBC as this latter network was one of the producers.

It covers the research into the terminal failure of the Challenger space shuttle from the perspective of physicist Richard Feynman.  I knew of Feynman for a long time as my father had mentioned him in the past as a brilliant man from NYC whom he had the pleasure of taking some classes/lectures with.

It is only of late that I have come to know Feynman and his work in general in an expanded nature.  To say he belongs with luminaries such as Einstein and Hawking is not hyperbole and in bringing the understanding of physics to the unwashed masses he may have no equal.  Few scientists could imagine their lives being bookended by such remarkable events as Feynman--in his VERY early 20's he was a principal scientist on the Manhattan Project rubbing shoulders with Oppenheimer, Bohr, Bethe, Teller, etc. and at the end of his life his work on bringing to light the causes of the Challenger Disaster put him on TV in front of millions looking for an explanation as to the single most psyche searing event in American history since the JFK/MLK assassinations 25 years earlier.

Its this last event in Feynman's life that this film shows.  As a decided outsider and lacking in societies "niceties" Feynman isn't concerned with his own career or standing in Washington circles.  He amongst all the individuals of the commission tasked with looking into the event was willing to look into the cracks (literally) and crevices of the shuttle program where money and politics mixed into a cauldron of indecision, cronyism and failure.

The film is well acted by William Hurt as Feynman, Bruce Greenwood as General Donald Kutnya and Brian Dennehy as William Rogers (head of the commission) and while not an "intense" thriller it does move along and capture the tension between the multiple interests represented by all sides--military, NASA, Washington politicians, manufacturing industry, etc.  The stress is built up until at the optimal moment, it cracks and the truth is forced to the surface and revealed on national TV.

Well paced, extremely informative and touching--watching Feynman struggle for solutions to the questions raised by the Challenger disaster while pissing blood and missing his family as his cancer ridden body fails him, is good stuff.

If you have a chance to watch this film in either its rebroadcasts on Discovery or the Science Channel or on demand or streaming online, I recommend it highly.  Its not "Hollywood" whiz-bang film making but its definitely worth your time and interest.

1 comment:

Dad said...


I never took any classes from Feynman - I had recommendations to study his lectures from MIT prople & others - all academics, but real world engineers I respected highly. Tis in the 1970's.

I had heard his name before that. I looked him up, bought the "Surely you're Joking.." book, then "6 Easy Pieces", and ~ 10 years back bought "6 Not So Easy Pieces". Fine stuff.

If I recall correctly, Feynman didn't have the negative reaction against the military (given in the TV film) during the A bomb period. You will read about that time frame in his "Surely you're Joking..." book. Maybe later (?) I haven't an idea re: that.

He was very young, and very concerned with his failing wife. One incident involves Klaus Fuchs.