by Victoria McCray
Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker, says that “the past is more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers acquiring material weight only in its recollection.” We all like to tell stories from the “good old days,” and in a sense all the stories we tell are from the past. Maybe this is the way we process our past, and this is why there is so much power in re-telling stories from our history. When people are united by a nationality, a race, a religion, or just shared humanity, that bond brings many shared stories. We identify with these shared experiences and thus have nostalgia for them even if we did not experience those events ourselves. We need to share the good and the bad that has happened to us over time so that we can process those moments, give them weight, and lock them in time.
This is why works of art based on historical events, especially tragedies, are difficult to create. The new film The Challenger Disaster required years of research, extensive pre-production, and careful casting decisions to be able to create a piece that not only recalls a time period but also presents the truth about an historical moment. Some people may ask if all the work is worth the result, and for director and writer Nathan VonMinden as well as the cast and crew, the answer is yes.
The film is about the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger which exploded 73 seconds after take-off, killing its 7 passengers. Most other films tell of NASA’s ingenuity or the heroism of the astronauts in a way that glorifies the “American spirit” and “human will.” The protagonist of the The Challenger Disaster, Adam (played by Erik Hanson), is actually an engineer for the company that designed the shuttle. Hanson is an O-ring expert, and he desperately tries to convince NASA not to launch due to the below-freezing temperatures colder than the O-Rings have been tested at. Adam and a few other engineers bravely defy their bosses in the communication meltdown of the century to warn of the shuttle’s impending disaster. Adam, though the protagonist, is shown as being a flawed human who wants prove he is right. Showing how he communicated with his co-workers and bosses helps ground the film in reality as a historical piece. Ultimately, the owner of the company overrides the engineers’ recommendation not to launch due to pressure from NASA.
When director VonMinden heard the story of the engineers, he was inspired by the bravery it took to testify against their own company. He says that he looked up to the engineers because of their struggle in choosing the humanity over the business. While doing research for this film, he read the Rogers Commission Report, which was the official investigation to find out what caused the launch failure. The report showed that NASA knew about the potential for disaster and had written off the warning. An article about Roger M. Boisjoly, the basis for Adam’s character, says the following: “In 1985, he warned managers that 0-rings used to seal joints in the booster rockets could fail at freezing temperatures. ‘The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order — loss of human life,’ he wrote in a memo.”
At the beginning of 1986, NASA had the goal of launching 24 shuttles that year, and they were falling behind. By January 28, the launch had been delayed 5 times from the original launch date of January 22, 1986. Consequently the next launch after the Challenger was September 22, 1988.
The time period of the Challenger’s launch is nostalgic for many Americans. First off, it was the 1980s, a time that seems to stick with us even if we were born a decade or more after it. Beyond that, the 1980s was a time when the thrill of the space program claimed the center of mainstream American consciousness. The film even references how this launch more than others was a publicity move for the space program because a civilian would be going into space along with the astronauts. The Teacher in Space Project was created in 1984 with the goal of creating a student interest in space. The first teacher of the program Christa McAuliffe who boarded the space shuttle Challenger. The program ended in 1990 because of the tragedy, but it was a time when people all over the nation were fascinated by space.
The Challenger Disaster film premiered on January 22, 2019, just six days shy of the thirty-third anniversary of the national tragedy. Why is this the time to tell another story about it? Perhaps because in a nation so focused on production, efficiency, and gain, we often overlook the humanity of the people around us. We hear all the time about people making the most efficient or profitable decisions regardless of ethics. Maybe we all feel the cultural shift which treats people as pawns, numbers, data points. A film about risky decisions is relatable. One where someone chooses to make the “human decision” is a relief from what we often experience in our daily lives.
In 2017 and 2018, many Americans have come forward as part of the #MeToo and other movements to share their experiences of being mistreated and taken advantage of by people who thought they were powerful enough to do so. The injustices that have been hidden are coming into the light. With time and hindsight, we feel that we can finally say what really happened. We are able to say the things that we hid that might have been too painful to tell before, when the wounds were still fresh. We are able to “give material weight” to what was once the present.
Jesse GrothOlson, a professor of Cinema and New Media Arts at Houston Baptist University, was the Director’s Assistant on the production of this film. During the Q&A after the premiere, he made this statement about the film, “The beauty in any tragedy, especially something like this that was real, that was lived and that many of us shared peripherally, is the story that we get to bring out of it. It is the love and the truth and the struggle, that make it beautiful. These filmmakers were sharing in a moment that was finite but now gets to live forever.”
We need art about history because it teaches us something about the human soul. We all long for times of the past, but we often do not know all the details of what happened. When we long for the space program to flourish like did before, we need to remember the lives that were sacrificed for the “business” decisions made to maintain NASA’s public and economic success. It is important for us to acknowledge the progress and the mistakes, otherwise we do not learn anything and therefore we cannot improve.
Since I grew up in Clear Lake, a suburb of Houston, Texas, right off NASA Road 1, I was familiar with the space program. My mom rented NASA documentaries for us from the library. We went to Space Center Houston. My family went to see the space shuttle Endeavor, which was the replacement shuttle for Challenger, at Ellington field when it retired, right at the end of the NASA Space Shuttle Program in 2011. Although I was surrounded by the space program, I do not remember any mention of the engineers who worked on Challenger. I do remember learning about the tragedy in a NASA documentary, but it was presented as a mistake that was part of launching people into space, not one that could have been prevented. We are taught to be informed consumers of news and to carefully consider all the factors that play into current events. However, we need to make sure that we remember past tragedies correctly, and that we teach the future generations the importance of knowing the whole story.
We sometimes are nostalgic for the wrong things without realizing all the details of what went on behind the scenes and how some people were not allowed to decide for themselves if they wanted to risk their lives. This is why films, like The Challenger Disaster must be made. Now this story is a time capsule that contains little known truth about this event. It locks this fragment of time into a place for safe-keeping.
Tarkovsky would agree, “For the first time in the history of the arts, in the history of culture, man found the means to take an impression of time…once seen and recorded, time could now be preserved in mental boxes over a long period (theoretically for ever).” We cannot change the past, but the next best thing is to preserve it. In capturing this tragedy, we have forever locked away a piece of time, finally hearing and honoring those who were taken advantage of, hurt, or misunderstood in a moment. We can now recollect it wholly, learning from the mistakes as well as rejoicing in the victories.
The Challenger Disaster is now available on iTunes and Amazon.