This moving, thorough analysis of what went wrong when seven Nasa crew members died 20 years ago doesn’t waste a moment. It’s a full, fitting memorial that’s not a minute too long
T he 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.