Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Challenger

On January 28th 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after the twenty-fifth Space Shuttle launch, killing all seven of its crew members. The disaster was, at the time, the most catastrophic loss in NASA history and is still remembered as one of the most disastrous and heartbreaking days in human space exploration. Following the tragedy a Commission was set up to get to the bottom of the disaster and uncover the cause of shuttle failure. The Commission contained former and current astronauts including the first American woman in space and the first man on the moon. It also contained a former Secretary of State, Air Force generals and physicists. One of these physicists was perhaps the most famous of the twentieth century, Richard Feynman. Feynman was crucial to the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb and won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 on the back of numerous papers and discoveries.

The Challenger (formerly titled Feynman and the Challenger) is a made for TV movie which first aired on the BBC on March 18th 2013. The film focuses on the role Richard Feynman (William Hurt) played in the Commission and the lengths that he went to; to prove what was really behind the Shuttle’s failure that January morning. The film intersperses real footage, including that of the actual event with dramatisations of Feynman’s quest for answers which are taken from Feynman’s autobiographical book What Do You Care What Other People Think? The movie is well researched and generally very well made and features a terrific central performance and compelling story.

I was born just under a month after the Challenger disaster but it was a part of my childhood. My parents had a huge poster on the stairs of one of the houses I grew up in of the crew and the Shuttle which used to intrigue and haunt me. As I got older I became very interested in Space exploration and in my twenties threw off the horrors of High School Physics lessons to become interested in the world of the micro and macro, of String Theory and Quantum Fields. I am to physics what a football fan is to football. I’m fascinated by it and get engrossed in small details but put me on the field and I’d lose the ball faster than the speed of light. I am an enthusiastic amateur. All of the above is a very long and drawn out way of saying that the plot of The Challenger is of great interest to me. Its principle character Richard Feynman is a man who I have some but not much knowledge of and most of my knowledge comes from the odd popular science book, YouTube clips and occasional popular science lecture delivered by the likes of Prof. Brian Cox, Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre as well as the comedy of Robin Ince. I was fascinated then to learn more.

The film introduced me to a Feynman I wasn’t expecting to meet. The Feynman I’ve seen footage of was controlled and firm and had a distinguishable but refined Queens accent. William Hurt’s Feynman is much more ‘Californian’. His accent is slightly different and his portrayal is more agitated and messy. I don’t mean any of this in a bad way though and think it matches the state that the man was in both mentally and physically. Although slightly dishevelled, Hurt has more than a passing resemblance to the scientist he is portraying. What is obvious from the film is that the budget doesn’t match that of an average theatrical film. There are corners cut in various places which sometimes detracts slightly from the movie as a whole but luckily the story is strong enough that it rarely gets in the way.

The plot is deeply fascinating and encompasses physics, ethics, finance and politics. All four combine in a tense and agitated melting pot which forms the Commission and it soon becomes apparent that Feynman is coming at the case from a different angle to the majority of the Commissioners. Early on he is frustrated by a lack of pace in the meetings and then he is stifled by the rigours step by step process. Feynman takes it upon himself to dig around and visits various NASA facilities in which he is viewed with suspicion by scientists and technicians scared to be held accountable. This sets up more conflict in the Commission and Feynman finds himself short of allies. He does however find a friend in Air force General Kutyna (Bruce Greenwood) who, like the audience by now, is sympathetic to the Physicist’s cause. What follows is a slow unravelling of the facts which without Feynman may never have come to light.

The film treads a thin line between telling the truth and attacking the likes of NASA and Solid Rocket manufacturer Morton Thiokol much as Feynman did himself. Although my limited knowledge gave me some insight into the disaster and subsequent findings I was fascinated to be taken on the journey towards the discovery and felt that the film blended this with Feynman’s health issues very well. It was clear from the outset that this was about Challenger first and his health second, something which again mirrors Feynman himself. Even the title of the movie can refer to the craft and the man. Occasionally I found myself questioning cover-ups and discoveries which seemed a little too dramatic and possibly exagerated but my knowledge doesn’t extend far enough to know what was real and what was invented. It is my belief and hope though that the vast majority of what I saw on screen was real. The actual footage certainly was and despite having seen it numerous times, it’s still heartbreakingly sad.

Overall The Challenger manages to get to the heart of the disaster and uncovers a man who deserves to be better known than he is. William Hurt is superb and the plot is fascinating in every detail. I had a few problems with realism and dramatic licence and the budget caused some issues but overall I’d recommend the movie to anyone with a passing interest in NASA, the disaster, Richard Feynman or just good detective thrillers. Like most good true stories it made me want to learn more for myself which on its own proves the movie was a success.


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