WCSFP ’13: Science gets dramatic with “Challenger Disaster”

In the final installment of realscreen's WCSFP-focused case studies, we look at one of the year's biggest science titles: Science Channel's factual drama The Challenger Disaster, which stars William Hurt (pictured) as physicist Richard Feynman.
December 5, 2013

As the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) continues in Montreal, realscreen takes a look at one of the year’s biggest science titles: Science Channel’s factual drama The Challenger Disaster, which stars William Hurt (pictured) as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

In January 1986, NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger exploded upon take-off, killing the seven astronauts aboard. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman joined the presidential commission looking into the causes of the disaster and soon found himself at odds with the chair over his maverick investigative methods.

During a televised hearing, Feynman famously dropped a piece of rubber in a glass of ice water to show how the shuttle’s O-ring gaskets could not withstand cold weather, and later pointed a finger at NASA officials in the Rogers Commission Report. “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled,” he wrote.

Feynman’s approach to investigating the tragedy form the basis of Science Channel’s first scripted factual drama, The Challenger Disaster (pictured), a coproduction with BBC Science based on Feynman’s memoir and starring Oscar-winning actor William Hurt in the lead role.

“If it is successful we’re going to look to do one to two scripted dramas a year,” Science’s general manager and executive vice president Debbie Myers told realscreen at Discovery Communications’ 2013-2014 upfront presentation. “Factual programming is our bread and butter but if a drama can bring people to Science to see all the non-fiction stuff that we’ve done, that’s the strategy we’re going to take.”

For each scripted project, Science Channel will also air a companion doc to give viewers a primer on the drama. Thus, Science and the BBC produced the doc Feynman: The Challenger in tandem with The Challenger Disaster to delve into Feynman’s accomplishments prior to the Challenger investigation. In addition to his role in the drama, Hurt also narrates the documentary.

“I’m very proud of the way the documentary makes some very complex science very accessible, which is the true genius of Richard Feynman,” says Rocky Collins, who served as an executive producer on the drama and doc. “The secret of his success and the fame he achieved as a scientist was his ability to make incredibly complicated physics seem simple without simplifying it.”

Featuring archival interviews shot by the BBC just prior to Feynman’s death in 1988, the half-hour doc is a biographical portrait of the charming and prolific scientist. Its archival research team also worked on the drama, becoming a go-to resource for historical accuracy on both projects.

Explaining complex physics within the projects was the biggest challenge for Collins. Keeping in mind what Collins calls Feynman’s “true genius” – his ability to make complex theories understandable to the lay person – producers allowed the theoretical physicist to speak for himself whenever possible.

Britain’s Open University also collaborated on the films, providing scientific advisors to ensure producers conveyed the scientific theories correctly.

“This was run out of the science department at BBC – it wasn’t BBC Drama – which is rare. So there was a commitment to historical and scientific accuracy as part of the DNA of the drama,” adds Collins.

Integrating scientific background into the scripted feature without detracting from the human story and the magnitude of the Challenger explosion proved trickier. Wherever possible, the filmmakers slipped background information into dialogue exchanges, such as those between Feynman and fellow Rogers Commission panelist General Donald Kutyna, for example, “so the audience didn’t feel like they’re getting a science lesson when in fact they might’ve been,” Collins explains.

That approach to the script impressed Hurt, a pilot who has studied NASA’s shuttle series.

“It was beautifully written,” he told realscreen at the Discovery upfront. “It wasn’t about show and tell. It wasn’t about gimmicks. It wasn’t about attracting attention. It was about paying attention to the topic. I loved that and it was so intricate about that. I really thought, ‘Oh God! I can finally play a character that’s actually doing something.’”

Watch the trailer for The Challenge Disaster below:

  • This article appears in the current November/December issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
realscreen november/december 2013
About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.