NEW YORK — The 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 it 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 8 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 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 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, with undisguised humility, into a pair of courses at Columbia University: computer science and Indo-Tibetan Hinduism.