‘Challenger: The Final Flight’ is a four-part documentary series that delves deep into the human aspect of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, which blew apart just 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986. By showcasing the pressure that was put on them by themselves and by the government, this Netflix original, helmed by Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge, explores the fatally flawed decision-making process done by NASA executives that led to the disaster. All of this is chronicled with the help of archival footage and interviews with NASA officials and rocket engineers. Among them is, of course, the Director of one of NASA’s centers, William Lucas, who gave the final decision that led Challenger to take flight.
Who Is William Lucas?
Born on March 1, 1922, William R. Lucas is an important figure in the world of space travel. He graduated from Memphis State College (now the University of Memphis) in 1943 with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, and then he went on to earn a Master’s degree, along with a doctorate, in Metallurgy (Material Science and Engineering) from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Subsequently, in 1952, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, to join Wernher von Braun’s (an aerospace engineer and space architect) team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. After being just a staff member for around four years, in 1956, he became the agency’s material officer.
It was in 1960, when the whole team was transferred to NASA as part of the Marshall Space Flight Center, that William Lucas joined the organization as well. There, he served in Marshall’s Propulsion and Vehicle Engineering Laboratory and developed the propulsion system for the Saturn V rocket. Along with that, he also had a hand in developing the world’s second space station, Skylab. Therefore, it was no surprise that he was named the center’s director in 1974, just two years after the start of the Space Shuttle program. Under his command, Marshall was responsible for managing the Shuttle’s propulsion system, including the functioning and safety of the boosters.
Thus, when Challenger blew apart on January 28, 1986, and video evidence showed a “plume” coming out of the solid rocket booster within seconds of liftoff, William Lucas, along with the entirety of Marshall Space Flight Center, came under investigation. Following that, a longtime Marshall executive wrote a letter to the center’s inspector detailing William’s harsh management style and how his orders rendered other executives scared to even voice concerns about the boosters. This letter eventually landed in the hands of the Rogers Commission. The criticism that William gained after this catastrophe led him to sign his retirement papers in July of 1986.
Where Is William Lucas Now?
William Lucas, at the age of 98, as per the last reports is residing in Huntsville, Alabama. As we mentioned, he handed in his retirement papers in 1986, not his resignation, therefore, his professional career came to a close right there itself. In the documentary series, though, he did mention that he stands by his decision of letting the Challenger space shuttle take flight that day as the information that he had at that point of time, although concerning, was inconclusive. But, even with that, we should mention that William, because of his hard work in the agency, earned almost every honor that NASA can bestow.
As for the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy, William has admitted that he feared the cancellation of the space shuttle program as well as the closure of Marshall Flight Center. But, he is glad that that didn’t happen and credits all the three space centers in ensuring that it remained that way, at least for a little while. “I credit a lot of individuals for doing that,” he said in an interview. “The three Centers, none of them tucked their tails and ran away. We did the best we could do. We maintained a stiff upper lip as they say and got it done.”
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