Monday, January 21, 2019

"The Challenger Disaster" Movie

Perhaps the most widely studied case in the field of engineering ethics is the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger shortly after launch.  The cause was traced to solid-rocket-booster O-ring seals that became too stiff to work in the near-freezing temperatures of the January 28 launch.  Combustion gases leaking through the seal of a rocket booster during the stress of launch destroyed the craft and killed all seven crew members, including a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe. 

Investigations after the launch revealed that engineers working for Morton-Thiokol Inc., the contractor for the boosters, knew of the leakage problem before the launch.  One engineer in particular named Roger Boisjoly was convinced that it was too dangerous to launch in such cold temperatures, and argued desperately in the hours leading up to the launch for his company to withhold approval.  But NASA was under severe pressure to keep to its schedule of launches, and Morton-Thiokol managers overruled the engineers and approved it anyway. 

That is the raw material out of which Nathan VonMinden, an aerospace engineer and now film director and screenwriter, has fashioned "The Challenger Disaster."  I spoke with VonMinden about the film, which is scheduled for general video-on-demand release at iTunes and Amazon on Jan. 25, and he stressed that his film is not a space movie in the mold of "The Right Stuff."  Having previewed the film, I agree with him that if you're looking for a pleasant hour and a half of thrills and adventure, "The Challenger Disaster" is not your best choice.  But if you want to see the inner workings of a dramatic and suspenseful tragedy and how it hinged upon the personality of a single engineer, this is the film to watch.

Adam is the name VonMinden gave to the Roger Boisjoly character.  Eric Hanson portrays Adam as a man obsessed by the truth and incautiously careless about how he tells it to others.  In eight years of researching the movie, VonMinden learned that Boisjoly was not an easy person to get along with.  In this film, Adam almost single-handedly forces his engineering colleagues at Morton-Thiokol to set up a teleconference with engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which was in charge of the rocket design, and NASA officials at the Cape, who were annoyed to hear that someone at Morton-Thiokol was expressing doubts about the integrity of the system less than a day before the already-delayed launch.  Watching engineers almost coming to blows over a technical issue may seem over-the-top to some, but believe me, fights can happen among engineers over plenty of less serious issues. 

Even if you are pretty familiar with the basics of the story, as I was, the film is almost agonizing to watch as the launch time draws closer.  VonMinden raises the dramatic tension with TV clips of actual footage of launch preparations and other authentic incidents in this film, which has very high production values for a modest-budget independent work.  The focus is always on Adam:  his belief going in that the truth is always a sufficient argument (it's not, as it turns out), his doubts that he's done enough to stop the launch, and his retrospective descriptions of what went on in the hours leading up to the launch. 

The film is set in the form of flashbacks during a conversation Adam has with an attorney he is trying to interest in a lawsuit against his former employer (unsuccessfully, as it turns out).  For the most part, this format works, although I confess to being slightly confused when another lawyer was shown interviewing Adam and a co-worker after the launch.  It turned out that the second lawyer was prepping Adam in advance of the presidential investigation commission hearings. 

But you won't get lost during the flashbacks to the generally dark and even dingy surroundings of 80s-era engineering office cubicles, complete with vintage PCs and even a Macintosh SE-30 I spotted on one manager's desk.  VonMinden carefully chose settings that allowed the human drama to be the focus rather than expensive sets or CGI work:  offices, homes, and exteriors that could be anywhere.  Nevertheless, the generally underlit atmosphere symbolizes Adam's darkening mood as the critical conference call comes and goes, and the decision is made to launch.  After Adam drives home that evening, he just sits out in the driveway in his car until his wife comes and gets into the seat beside him.  The resulting scene is Bergmanesque in its intensity and silence, and is welcome in an era when decibel levels seem to be the main criterion for a film's popular success.

Later, during the  hearings that Adam and his fellow engineers attend, they come forward out of the audience and interrupt the proceedings after they hear a Morton-Thiokol manager lie about his knowledge of the seal problem.  After the hearing, a sympathetic commission member finds Adam and reassures him that there are whistleblowing laws to protect him from repercussions of his testimony. 

While it is never good to kick a man while he is down, I wish the film had taken time to show in more detail the intensity of the ostracism that forced the real-life Boisjoly to resign from Morton-Thiokol after his participation in the hearings made him persona non grata at work.  Although I'm unaware of any rigorous statistical studies of the fate of whistleblowers after they blow the whistle, my sense is that they always pay a heavy price professionally.  They are usually treated as traitors by their organizations, and find it less stressful to let go of a job that has become meaningless and find another employer, or even another profession.  For his part, Boisjoly made a new career out of giving talks to engineering students about his experiences.  In a brief scene toward the end of the film we see Adam doing just that, encouraging budding engineers to take their work seriously, because it can affect people you don't know in ways that you can't imagine.  But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. 

For a complex, historically accurate, and thought-provoking take on the Challenger disaster, I cannot think of a better medium than "The Challenger Disaster"  for conveying the seriousness of the emotion-laden decisions that have to be made at critical times.  It is not a fun movie, but it's a good one.  And I hope it does well in video-on-demand release, because engineers need to see it. 

Sources:  The film's distribution company, Vertical Entertainment, contacted me about "The Challenger Disaster" and motivated me to view the film and interview the director, who is based in San Antonio.  The film's trailer can be viewed at, and on Jan. 25 it should be available at numerous video-on-demand outlets such as iTunes and Amazon.  It will also have theatrical premieres in Houston on Jan. 22 and Dallas on Jan. 24.

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