TV movie de­picts one physi­cist’s hunt to learn why the Chal­lenger ex­ploded

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY FRA­ZIER MOORE

TNEW YORK he watch­ing world was hor­ri­fied when, on Jan. 28, 1986, the space shut­tle Chal­lenger ex­ploded over Cape Canaveral, Fla., just sec­onds af­ter liftoff. Seven crew mem­bers, in­clud­ing beloved teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, lost their lives, and the manned space pro­gram was dealt a nearly mor­tal blow.

Five months later, the rea­son — two of the shut­tle’s O-rings had failed dur­ing launch — was made pub­lic, a ma­jor find­ing of the pres­i­den­tial com­mis­sion formed to solve the mys­tery.

A vo­cal mem­ber of that com­mis­sion was Richard Feyn­man, a world-renowned physi­cist and No­bel lau­re­ate whose sharp mind and dogged spirit led him to the de­sign flaw, in the process ex­pos­ing neg­li­gence and cover-ups by both NASA and the con­trac­tor sup­ply­ing the O-rings.

A new film, “The Chal­lenger Dis­as­ter,” stars Wil­liam Hurt as Feyn­man (with co-stars in­clud­ing Brian Dennehy and Bruce Green­wood). Air­ing Satur­day at 9 p.m. on Sci­ence Chan­nel, it de­picts his unswerv­able search for the truth, even in the face of re­sis­tance from his col­leagues.

“In a way, Feyn­man in­ter­ested me more than the pro­ject did,” says Mr. Hurt. “This is mostly an event story, but I thought we could al­low char­ac­ter to ex­ist within the nar­ra­tive and lead to a greater con­clu­sion: Hu­man courage is re­ally what it’s all about, and lis­ten­ing to your own in­stinc­tive, lov­ing skep­tic. That’s what Feyn­man did.”

It’s a nippy fall day, and Mr. Hurt is dis­cussing the film, and many other things, with a re­porter as he walks his dog, Lucy, in Man­hat­tan’s River­side Park.

The 63-year-old Hurt, a TV, stage and Os­car-win­ning film star (for “Kiss of the Spi­der Woman”), has been tak­ing an act­ing break this fall to play a dif­fer­ent role, that of stu­dent, as this for­mer Tufts the­ol­ogy ma­jor

plunges into a pair of cour­ses at Columbia Univer­sity: com­puter sci­ence and Indo-Ti­betan Hin­duism.

“I’m work­ing pretty hard,” he says with clear un­der­state­ment as he un­snaps the leash worn by Lucy, a gen­tle Dober­man pin­scher-Labrador mix, who is nib­bling some grass and con­tem­plat­ing the jog­gers.

“Your mind, your heart must learn to value your­self,” Mr. Hurt says, piv­ot­ing back to what Feyn­man taught him. “That’s where your an­swers will come from: Learn to bear your frus­tra­tions gladly, ’cause they’re your teacher. YOU are your teacher.”

An ac­tor of­ten out­spo­ken about the frus­tra­tion he bears as an ac­tor (“I have a hard time find­ing work that will al­low me to do what I know how to do, be­cause they won’t give me time to pre­pare”) has only good things to say about shoot­ing “The Chal­lenger Dis­as­ter.”

A co-pro­duc­tion with the BBC, the film was di­rected by James Hawes (“Doc­tor Who,” “Fanny Hill”), whom Mr. Hurt hails as “a great hu­man be­ing and a great di­rec­tor.”

Un­der Mr. Hawes’ ste­ward­ship, Mr. Hurt says, he got what he craves as an ac­tor: “Not to be show­ing off, not to be in­se­cure, but to open my­self to a new look at life.”

Mr. Hawes, speaking by phone from Eng­land, de­scribes their first meet­ing while he was on a trip to New York last fall.

The pair took a stroll to visit, fit­tingly, the shut­tle En­ter­prise pro­to­type in­stalled nearby at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Mu­seum Com­plex.

“The sun was shin­ing,” Mr. Hawes re­calls, “and we had the most ex­traor­di­nary walk. By the end of it, we had a bond.”

Once shoot­ing com­menced in South Africa, Mr. Hawes goes on, “I ar­ranged for Wil­liam to have a les­son on the bon­gos, be­cause Feyn­man no­to­ri­ously played them. I’m not usu­ally that Method, but I knew that he is a man who loves his re­search. I’ll never for­get sit­ting there in the dy­ing light of a South African evening with Wil­liam Hurt and a bongo teacher ham­mer­ing out rhythms.”

In River­side Park, Mr. Hurt de­scribes his fas­ci­na­tion with the char­ac­ter whose rhythms he chan­neled.

“I was so grafted to Feyn­man as a spirit,” he says. “A spirit like that, you can le­git­i­mately wor­ship. They don’t want your en­slave­ment, they want your free­dom. Feyn­man wants your free­dom!

“Look! Here comes a cop!” he in­ter­rupts him­self as he spies a parks depart­ment golf cart. “He’ll ar­rest you,” Mr. Hurt tells Lucy as he re-snaps the leash the law re­quires her to wear. “You’d go to prison. We’d go to prison to­gether.”

Feyn­man died in 1988 at age 69 of the cancer he was bat­tling while on the com­mis­sion, but his spirit lives on, in­clud­ing, Mr. Hurt hopes, in this film, and in the in­ter­est the film might spur in what Feyn­man stood for. That sort of im­pact, Mr. Hurt says, is what makes drama great.

“Be­ing in­ter­est­ing for its own sake is worth­less,” he de­clares. “You have to be in­ter­ested in a theme: The ques­tion of who we are, why we are, should be con­sid­ered carefully and au­da­ciously. Just at­tract­ing at­ten­tion for its own sake is chaos.”

Just then, the caw­ing of birds at­tracts at­ten­tion over­head.

“When the crows caw, you know the in­ter­view’s over,” says Mr. Hurt, amused. “They’re here to tell us we’re no longer be­ing use­ful, you know what I mean?”

With that, he and Lucy head off to a neigh­bor­hood pet store. It’s time to buy her a treat.

Richard P. Feyn­man dis­cov­ered the de­sign flaw in the space shut­tle and ex­posed neg­li­gence and cover-ups by NASA and the con­trac­tor sup­ply­ing the O-rings that failed. The No­bel lau­re­ate died two years later.


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