The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth review – the finest possible tribute to the astronauts who lost their lives

The three-part documentary The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbia disaster, when “one of the most complex machines ever built by the human race” disintegrated on the return journey of 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 of press interviews, tapes made during their training and recordings created while they carried out their 16-day mission in space (including chats to their families back on Earth) show them as living, breathing human beings, almost until the very moment that the shuttle failed. They are interwoven with current-day 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 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 remembering them is thoughtful, articulate, gentle and clearly shaped by the losses they have been carrying for 20 years.

If it had stayed in this familiar territory for anniversary documentaries, it would have been a deeply moving but in some senses unnecessary hour. Instead, alongside the interviews, but never overshadowing them, three episodes carefully interrogate the reasons for the astronauts’ deaths. The series becomes like a Netflix true crime drama – but shorn of any sensationalism – and, in this case, unpicking the failures of the sprawling Nasa complex instead of the police or criminal justice system.

In telling the story, the series marshalls and keeps impressive control of the large cast of people who were involved in the mission in various capacities. The tale is complicated in terms of who said what to whom and when, but is at its heart a very simple one – it’s about what went wrong.

When Nasa analysed, as they always do, 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 bounced off. It was determined to be insulating foam from the external tank. This had 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 acquire it they suggested methods that ranged from asking the crew to look out of the window, to accessing powerful ground telescopes and repurposing a military spy satellite.

Management didn’t think it was worth worrying the crew. They thought telescopes would be pointless, and asking the military for help would be a huge undertaking and – less overtly acknowledged – an embarrassing one. Foam striking the shuttle in 65 out of 75 missions with launch footage available was taken as proof it would never cause damage rather than a sign that their luck might soon run out.

After that, the story focuses on how siloed and rigidly hierarchical institutions can malfunction, and how incremental the steps towards catastrophe can be: a handful of ignored emails, distraction by a more immediate weather-related threat, a spur-of-the-moment claim made during a press conference that was hard to abandon, setting the mission on a firmer path. Nobody, in the end, was quite willing to entertain the possibility of the worst-case scenario until too late, and when they did, Nasa decided – if such a definite word can be used for what seems more like an emergent consensus – not to tell the crew of their concerns. If what they increasingly feared was true, there was no remedial action to be taken and the best course of action was to continue the mission – which, with painful irony, was going very smoothly – and hope that those fears were not realised on re-entry.

Not a minute is wasted throughout the three hours, which don’t feel a moment too long. It is a demonstration and meditation, awful in its detail and clarity, of our capacity (even among the best and most brilliant minds) for delusion, and the dangers of not having fully-integrated support systems for reporting concerns available to all types and levels of employees. It pays the fullest tribute to the seven Columbia astronauts and their families, who were its victims.

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The Guardian

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