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Netflix delves into the 'human side' of Challenger disaster

NEW YORK — Many Americans have vivid memories of Jan. 28, 1986.

That was the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded over a chilly Florida, just seconds after liftoff. School children across the country had tuned in to see Christa McAuliffe become the first teacher in space.

One person watching was Steven Leckart, a space-obsessed elementary school kid. Like everyone else, he was shocked by the blast and felt the slow, sickening realization that all seven aboard were gone.

Leckart has returned to that dark day as co-director of the four-part Netflix documentary series “Challenger: The Final Flight,” executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper. It premieres Wednesday.

The series approaches the disaster less like a post-mortem and more like a drama. It explores NASA history and the lives of the seven lost astronauts, why the accident occurred and the inquest that followed.

Zipper and Leckart conceived of it in 2015 while looking to make something personal. Both had seen the disaster as boys but could only remember the name of one astronaut aboard Challenger: McAuliffe. Who were the other six?

The more they dug, the more they found extraordinary people: Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space, and Ronald McNair was the second African American. Judith Resnik was the second American and the first Jewish woman in space.

“We wanted to humanize these astronauts and wanted you to know these characters and understand the human side of this whole story,” co-director Daniel Junge said.

Watching the series was a “rollercoaster ride of emotion” for June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee and who helped establish the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

“There is sadness and as a reminder of that tremendous private grief that was made so public,” Scobee Rodgers said. But there is also home movies of her late husband having fun with family and friends. “There are wonderful snippets of joy.”

She credited the filmmakers for telling a story “no one else has ever been able to do. There’s been many, many stories, but they give it the serious respect that it deserves by telling the whole story.”

Months after the disaster, the cause was revealed: O-ring seals failed, causing leaks in the right booster rocket. An investigation found some workers had warned NASA about the danger of launching Challenger because the O-rings grew brittle in cold weather. But NASA was under pressure to keep to its ambitious flight schedule and the risk was deemed acceptable.

“When we started this series, I did kind of expect to find that mustache-twirling villain, that one person that everything could be laid at their feet. And I don’t think we did find that person,” Zipper said.

“There is no one who said ‘This thing is definitely going to disintegrate. But let’s launch it anyway.’ They all were loyal to their missions to a fault.”

Scobee Rodgers said the series shows how people can rationalize away problems, but despite her immense loss, she has no anger toward the decision-makers.

“I have such empathy for the gentlemen that made the difficult decisions because they were under pressure for that schedule, placed on NASA unfairly, I do believe,” she said.

Leckart likened the way the Challenger disaster unfolded to another man-made disaster in 1986 — the Chernobyl meltdown. “These are not necessarily nefarious people with anything but the best of intentions. But that can quickly go awry.”

The series airs just as space exploration has returned to America’s consciousness. In May, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched astronauts into orbit from home soil for the first time in nearly a decade.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic also plan trips to space.

“We are going to be going further in space and we’re going to be taking more risk. So the time is right to remind people of what can go wrong,” Zipper said.

“There’s always going to be loss. If we want to launch ourselves into the next frontier, the final frontier, we’re going to lose more people. It’s inevitable.”


LONDON — Black actor John Boyega has stepped down from his role as a global ambassador for perfume brand Jo Malone after the company decided to hire a Chinese actor to replace him in an ad he created.

The “Star Wars” star wrote Tuesday on Twitter that the brand’s decision to “replace my campaign in China by using my concepts and substituting a local brand ambassador for me, without either my consent or prior notice, was wrong.”

Jo Malone, an upscale British perfume brand owned by Estée Lauder, has said that replacing Boyega with Chinese star Liu Haoran in the ad campaign was a misstep. It has removed the ad and apologized.

The original ad starring Boyega, 28, aired last year and was called “The London Gent.” It features the London-born actor walking around the neighborhood where he grew up and riding a horse in a park, and it makes a reference to his Nigerian heritage in a scene featuring West African attire.

“The film celebrated my personal story — showcasing my hometown, including my friends and featuring my family,” Boyega wrote. “While many brands understandably use a variety of global and local ambassadors, dismissively trading out one’s culture this way is not something I can condone.”

It’s not the first time Boyega has been deleted from a China-based ad. He played a leading role as Finn in 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but he and other non-white characters were removed or diminished from a Chinese poster for the blockbuster movie.

Boyega recently told GQ that Black characters have been “pushed to the side” in Disney’s “Star Wars” franchise. In June, the star made an emotional speech on racism when he joined Black Lives Matter protests in London.


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