THE CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLETo show how wrong even Phoenix Ark can be Challenger was not a US script at all, but an entirely British Production! Many apologies to the writers, though we still hold to what we say about Homeland and other shows.

In yet another example of the excellence of US script writing, which reaches from Damages to the phenomenal and inspired Homeland, last night’s dramatisation of The Challenger story struck another blow for truth and dramatic art. So the wonderful, charming William Hurt took the role of Richard Feynman, the quantum scientist and Nobel Prize winner, who had worked on the Manhattan Project during the war with Oppenheimer, and was brought in to investigate NASA’s role, when Challenger exploded in 1986 and scuppered the Space Shuttle mission in the Reagan years. As ever, it is a story of natural administrative cover-up and how Feynman’s dogged pursuit of the scientific truth blew a whole through the smoke screen that was put up. So exposing, on TV and in very simple layman’s terms, why the O-rings on Challenger’s fuel tanks did not expand in freezing temperatures, to stop fuel spillage and disaster. Also why claims that an accident was near impossible, if based just on Feynman’s own understanding of probability theory, meant that in reality one in only two hundred Space Shuttle flights faced potential disaster and death.

Behind that, as Feynman’s more reluctant colleagues on the enquiry showed, although quietly encouraging the scientist’s independence too, was politics, money and power. How the Military Industrial Complex had done a deal with NASA to use the Shuttle for Military payloads and how that put pressure on NASA to risk launches under unsuitable conditions. Why too a two star General involved in the enquiry was not the simple villain of the piece, and life can get far from black and white. Also why every enquiry needs its outside and independent voice though. Feynman would die of cancer soon after, perhaps contracted from his own work on the A-Bomb, and like all the scientists involved in that project, would change his mind about the simple wonders of science, especially when in the hands of the military. Just as even President Eisenhower warned of the ever-present threat to any Democracy of the power of the Military-Industrial complex. Although many scientists involved with The Manhattan Project were discredited at the time as ‘commies’, freaks or even US traitors. Hurt was brilliant as the prickly scientist, atheist and establishment irritant, in a drama that quietly smouldered with the ever tough challenge of simply trying to see and tell the truth.


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