On Wednesday, April 7th, the Leatherby Libraries held its first virtual event, “Researching a Disaster Through the Making of Challenger: The Final Flight.” Two of the producers (an archival producer and a post-production producer) of the recent Netflix documentary series, along with a Mission Operations Engineer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Chapman University Leadership Professor Mark Maier came together to discuss the research that went into the making of the series, the lessons we can all learn from the Challenger disaster, and exciting new developments in space exploration. The series’ directors, Daniel Junge and Steven Leckart, joined for the Q&A at the end of the event to share their thoughts on the making of the series.

The event began with a tribute to Allan McDonald, one of the key whistleblowers from the Challenger disaster, who donated his collection to the Leatherby Libraries in 2016, and who passed away last month. While a collage of photos of Allan from the donation event in 2016 were shown, a moment of silence was observed, followed by a few words from Professor Maier, who described Allan as “one of the inspirational figures in my life.”Collage of two photos. In the photo on the left, a man is standing behind a podium, holding up a framed plaque, while a man sits to the left smiling up at him. In the photo on the right, a group of people are standing in the shape of an O-ring. Text across the bottom reads, "Allan McDonald at the “Challenger: 30 Years of Remembrance” donation event in January 2016."From there, the conversations began with the shared formative experience that all of the panelists, and one of the moderators, librarian Doug Dechow, had of the Challenger disaster. Professor Maier spoke about the ways in which the story of Challenger has been both the centerpiece and bookends of his career. “I didn’t choose Challenger, Challenger chose me,” he said, speaking of his encounter, early in his career, with Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who had vehemently warned against the launch of Challenger. Boisjoly corrected Professor Maier’s understanding of the failure in management that led to the disaster, and shaped Professor Maier’s primary pedagogical model. This pedagogical model can be seen in Professor Maier’s mini-documentary, “‘A Major Malfunction…’ The Story Behind the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.”

Archival producers Pamela Madieros and Kelley Whitis spoke about the behind the scenes process of combing through archives – including several held in the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives – to create the most thorough and well-researched documentary as possible. Both stressed the importance of archives, for far more than academic purposes, and Pamela even compared her archival research process to Indiana Jones.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Sherwin Goo talked about his lifelong love of space exploration, and his identification with the JPL motto: “Dare mighty things.” He cited observing the assembly of the Cassini spacecraft in a cleanroom as one of the most exciting things he’s seen in his job, along with meeting “Science Guy” Bill Nye at the launch of the Juno JOI insertion.

When directors Daniel Junge (currently teaching at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts) and Steven Leckart joined for the Q&A session, much of the discussion focused on the role of documentary filmmakers. Steven remarked on the question that documentary makers must ask: “Are we historians or are we storytellers?” Landing on the storytellers side of the question, he said, helped him and Daniel make certain editing decisions, including the omission of some of the narratives and interviews (including the story of Roger Boisjoly, about whom several questions were asked).

Many thanks again to our panelists Sherwin Goo, Pamela Madieros, Professor Mark Maier, and Kelley Whitis; the directors Daniel Junge and Steven Leckart; our moderators librarians Doug Dechow and Annie Tang; and the offices of Legal Affairs and IS&T for creating and supporting a truly remarkable event.

If you missed this engaging panel (or you watched it live and simply want to watch it again), you can watch it on the Chapman University Digital Commons here.

Further Reading on Roger Boisjoly and Allan McDonald recommended by Coordinator of Special Collections & Archives Annie Tang: