Tthe three-part documentary The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Columbia disaster, when “one of the most complex machines ever built by the human race” disintegrated on the return trip from its 28th mission, killing all seven astronauts on board.
It is a commemoration, in the fullest sense, of the men and women who died. Contemporary footage from press interviews, tapes made during their training and recordings made while they carried out their 16-day mission in space (including chats with their families back on Earth) show them as living, breathing people, almost to the moment that the shuttle failed. They are interwoven with current interviews of surviving members of their families, notably Commander Richard Husband’s wife, Evelyn, Mission Specialist Michael P Anderson’s wife, Sandy, and daughter, Kaycee, Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon’s son, Tal, and Mission Specialist Laurel Clark’s mission specialist . husband, Jon, and son, Iain. The other astronauts who lost their lives were pilot William C McCool and mission specialists Kalpana Chawla and David M Brown. Everyone who remembers them is thoughtful, articulate, gentle and clearly shaped by the losses they have carried for 20 years.
Had it stayed in this familiar territory for commemorative documentaries, it would have been a deeply moving but in some ways unnecessary hour. Instead, alongside the interviews but never overshadowing them, three episodes closely examine the reasons for the astronauts’ deaths. The series becomes like a Netflix true crime drama – but without any sensationalism – and, in this case, the failures of the vast Nasa complex instead of the police or criminal justice system.
In telling the story, the series manipulates and maintains impressive control over the large group of people who were involved in the mission in various capacities. The story is complicated in terms of who said what to whom and when, but is at heart a very simple one – it’s about what went wrong.
When Nasa, as they always do, analyzed the recordings taken during launch, they noticed that something had detached from the shuttle, hit the wing and created a cloud of dust as it took off. It was determined to be insulating foam from the external tank. This has happened before, but with smaller pieces and no damage. Here it was not clear that the wing was intact; various teams needed more data, and to obtain it they proposed methods that ranged from asking the crew to look out the window, to accessing powerful ground-based telescopes and retargeting a military spy satellite.
Management didn’t think it was worth worrying the crew. They thought telescopes would be useless, and asking the military for help would be a huge undertaking and – less openly admitted – embarrassing. Foam hitting the shuttle in 65 out of 75 missions with launch material available was taken as proof that it would never cause damage rather than a sign that their luck might soon run out.
After that, the story focuses on how stifled and rigidly hierarchical institutions malfunction, and how incremental the steps to disaster can be: a handful of ignored emails, distraction by a more immediate weather-related threat, a spur-of-the-moment demand made during ‘ a press conference that was hard to pass up, putting the mission on a firmer path. In the end, no one was quite willing to entertain the possibility of the worst-case scenario, and when they did, Nasa decided – if such a definitive word can be used for what was more like a nascent consensus look – not to tell the crew about their concerns. If what they increasingly feared was true, there was no corrective action to be taken and the best course of action was to continue the mission – which, with painful irony, went very smoothly – and hope that those fears was realized with re-enrolment.
Not a minute is wasted throughout the three hours, which doesn’t feel a moment too long. It is a demonstration and meditation, terrifying in its detail and clarity, of our capacity (even among the best and brightest minds) for error, and the dangers of not having fully integrated support systems for reporting concerns available to all types and levels of employees. It pays the greatest tribute to the seven Columbia astronauts and their families, who were its victims.