EXCLUSIVE: Discovery Channel has decided to simulcast Science Channel’s first stab at scripted programming — the 90-minute The Challenger Disaster — when it premieres on November 16 at 9 PM, to ensure it gets the biggest possible audience and because the movie fits Discovery’s footprint. Discovery Channel this calendar year, is averaging 1.3 million viewers – 660,000 of them aged 18-49. Science Channel this year is averaging 304,000 viewers – 117,000 of them in the demo. When Science first announced the project in July, its GM Debbie Myers said it was the “biggest swing” in the network’s history. Produced in collaboration with the BBC and based on Dr. Richard Feynman’s memoir, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, the movie details Feynman’s participation in the Presidential Commission put together to investigate the Challenger explosion. William Hurt plays Feynman – the Caltech physicist/Nobel laureate who, in a televised hearing, demonstrated that the Challenger’s O-ring was not sufficiently pliable, submerging a piece of it in a glass of ice water, causing it to grow stiff and bend, and Feynman to note, “I believe that has some significance for our problem,” according to press reports. At the investigation’s conclusion, Feynman’s report, “Appendix F – Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle,” was presented to POTUS, independent of the commission’s report.
The Challenger explosion was one of those where-were-you-then moments in American history; millions of TV viewers watched in horror on January 1986 as the space vehicle burst apart, killing all seven astronauts on board, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, who’d been added to the crew because space travel was considered that safe; she was going to provide terrific PR for the space program by teaching some classes to school children from space.
The film, shot in South Africa, features Bruce Greenwood as fellow commission member U.S. Air Force General Donald Kutyna. Also in the cast: Brian Dennehy as former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, who was named by President Reagan to lead the commission; Joanne Whalley as Feynman’s wife, Gweneth; Henry Goodman as Feynman’s oncologist, Dr. Weiss; and Eve Best as astronaut Sally Ride. For the BBC, Mark Hedgecoe (Operation Iceberg, Rome: The Rise And Fall Of An Empire) and Cassian Harrison (Earthflight, First Light) executive produced, and Laurie Borg (Great Expectations, Sense And Sensibility, Occupation) produced. James Hawes (Enid, Doctor Who, Fanny Hill) directed the script by Kate Gartside (Mistresses, Lark Rise To Candleford, Stopping Distance ).