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


The three-part film The Space Shuttle That Crashed to Earth commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Columbia disaster, in which “one of the most intricate inventions ever created by humans” broke apart during its 28th mission and resulted in the death of all seven astronauts on board.

This is a tribute to the men and women who passed away. The documentary includes recent interviews, training tapes, and recordings from their 16-day space mission, where they can be seen as individuals with their own lives and families until the moment of the shuttle’s failure. The film also features present-day interviews with surviving family members, including 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 perished were pilot William C McCool and mission specialists Kalpana Chawla and David P Brown. Those who remember them are reflective, well-spoken, kind, and deeply impacted by the loss they have carried for two decades.

Had it stuck to the usual format of anniversary documentaries, it could have been a touching but somewhat unnecessary hour. However, in addition to the interviews, three episodes thoughtfully examine the causes of the astronauts’ deaths, without overshadowing them. The series takes on a similar style as a Netflix true crime drama, but without any sensationalism, and focuses on uncovering the flaws of the vast Nasa complex instead of the police or criminal justice system.

The series effectively manages and maintains control over the numerous individuals who played a part in the mission. While the narrative may be convoluted in regards to who communicated with whom and when, it ultimately boils down to a straightforward concept – what went awry.

Upon reviewing the launch footage, Nasa identified an incident where an object, likely insulating foam, broke off from the shuttle and collided with the wing, causing a cloud of dust upon impact. This had occurred in the past with smaller pieces without causing damage, but it was unclear if the wing remained unharmed. In order to gather more information, different teams proposed various methods such as having the crew observe from the window, using ground telescopes, and repurposing a military satellite.

The management did not believe it was necessary to inform the crew. They believed that using telescopes would serve no purpose, and requesting assistance from the military would be a difficult and potentially embarrassing task. Despite evidence that foam had struck the shuttle in 65 out of 75 missions where footage was available, this was seen as confirmation that it would not cause damage rather than a potential warning that their luck could eventually run out.

Later on, the narrative shifts to the malfunctioning of siloed and rigidly hierarchical institutions and the gradual progression towards catastrophe. This includes a few disregarded emails, being distracted by a more immediate weather-related issue, a spontaneous statement made during a press conference that was difficult to retract, and finally making a decision to solidify the mission. Ultimately, nobody was willing to consider the worst-case scenario until it was too late. When they finally did, Nasa chose not to inform the crew of their concerns. If their fears were indeed valid, there was no way to rectify the situation and the best course of action was to continue with the mission, which was ironically going smoothly, and hope that their concerns would not materialize during re-entry.

The three-hour experience is a powerful demonstration and reflection on our ability to deceive ourselves, even among the most intelligent individuals. It highlights the importance of having comprehensive support systems in place for all employees to report concerns. The tribute to the seven Columbia astronauts and their loved ones, who were tragically impacted, is thoroughly paid. No time is wasted in this profound and detailed reflection.

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  • The BBC Two broadcast of The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth can be found on BBC iPlayer.

Source: theguardian.com