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Don't expect to see tributes to fallen space heroes in "The Challenger Disaster," the Science Channel's first-ever docudrama. Instead, you should think of the show as a detective story in the "Law and Order" mold, starring one of history's geekiest sleuths ever: Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, played by William Hurt.
The 1986 space shuttle explosion, in which teacher Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts lost their lives, accounts for only the first seven minutes of the two-hour program premiering Saturday night on the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel. The rest of the time is devoted to Feynman's relentless investigation of the disaster's causes.
Hurt, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a flamboyant gay prisoner in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," takes on another challenge here: You might not think of him as the ideal choice to play the wisecracking, bongo-playing iconoclast — but he plays up the scientist's serious side, in a situation that forces Feynman to face official stonewalling as well as his own mortality.
"The Challenger Disaster" draws upon the late physicist's memoir — "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" — with a few dramatic embellishments. Feynman joined the presidential commission investigating the tragedy as a conspicuous outsider: Most of the panel's other members were insiders, or symbolic figures such as moonwalker Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, America's first woman in space.
It's not much of a spoiler to note that the problem with Challenger turned out to be the rubber O-rings that sealed joints on the shuttle's solid rocket boosters. "The Challenger Disaster" makes it look as if Feynman figured that out for himself. In fact, the O-rings emerged as the main suspect just two days after the explosion, in part due to an NBC News report.
Feynman focused on why the O-rings failed. The docudrama shows him going back and forth between Kennedy Space Center, where the Challenger wreckage was laid out for inspection, and Marshall Space Flight Center, where he interviewed reluctant engineers about the way the shuttle was put together.
There's one stunning scene in which a fellow member of the panel, Air Force Gen. Donald Kutyna, gives Feynman a one-on-one classified briefing about the pressures that NASA was under to launch the shuttle. In another scene, Kutyna tips Feynman off about the link between Challenger's disastrous launch and the unusually chilly temperatures that morning at the Cape — by musing over how cold temperatures might affect the rubber seals on a carburetor he had sitting in his garage.
That led Feynman to conduct one of his most famous experiments: Right in the middle of one of the commission's hearings, he dunked a strip of O-ring rubber into a glass of ice water and showed how quickly it lost its resilience. "I believe that has some significance for our problem," Feynman declared.
All this is true. It's also true that Kutyna and other members of the commission used Feynman as a tool for exposing the truths they couldn't reveal themselves.
"I was being worked — operated by somebody else who wanted to get something done without involving himself," Feynman said later. "Those guys are clever, you know — I think I'm running around on my own hook, getting a clue here and a clue there, but those clues were just little taps to make me run in the right direction."
Many of the plot points in the story of the Challenger investigation have been shifted around to make for a more dramatic story — but perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as you're watching "The Challenger Tragedy" is that Feynman didn't solve the mystery alone. He was guided not only by the winks and whispers of his fellow commission members, but also by the revelations brought to light by whistleblowers and the press.
The Science Channel's docudrama touches on that side of the story, but for a fuller picture, check out these resources about Feynman and the Challenger tragedy:
- "Genius": James Gleick's biography tells the full story of Feynman's life and science.
- "Classic Feynman": A compilation of Feynman's writings, including lots of reminiscences about the Challenger investigation.
- "No Ordinary Genius": Christopher Sykes brings together pictures, documents and conversations about Feynman.
- "Feynman": Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick team up to turn Feynman's story into a graphic novel.
- "Another Cover-Up": NASA whistleblower Richard C. Cook, author of "Challenger Revealed," critiques the TV show.
- "Truth, Lies and O-Rings": Morton Thiokol whistleblower Allan McDonald recounts the space shuttle ordeal.
- "The Challenger Saga": NBC News' Jay Barbree retells the tale of the Challenger explosion.
- "Live From Cape Canaveral": Barbree's memoir touches upon 50 years of space stories, including Challenger.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.