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"CHALLENGER' IS TOO BOOSTERISH

Two minutes into the tragedy-propelled story, and the shallowness of the dialogue and the hollowness of the characters smack you depressingly in the face because it's as far from real life as Earth is from Pluto.Challenger airs on Sunday from 8 to 11 p.m. on WTSP-Ch. 10 and WWSB-Ch. 40.

If ABC's Challenger movie about the space shuttle explosion were a superior, provocative production, then one could almost forgive this TV docudrama for its gross trespassing.

But it's not, and instead badly blurs the truth and fiction about the lives of the seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and engineer Greg Jarvis.

What's wrong with Challenger? Two minutes into the tragedy-propelled story, and the shallowness of the dialogue and the hollowness of the characters smack you depressingly in the face because it's as far from real life as Earth is from Pluto.

Could this show be about an actual event, one that none of us in this lifetime will ever forget?

There was no cooperation from the crews' families, and, in fact, there was a lot of reported bitterness about the making of this movie.

Not that the seven astronauts are shown in a bad light, just an unrealistic one. The cast members behave as if they are Ken and Barbie dolls. The show opens with a widely beaming McAuliffe, played by always grinning and giggling Karen Allen. The beginning scene has McAuliffe rehearsing the day before the Jan. 28, 1986, launch. She's deciding how she will introduce the crew from space to her nationwide schoolroom. In this neatly scripted way, all the principals are quickly drawn into the drama.

Barry Bostwick is Commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Keone Young is Ellison Onizuka, Richard Jenkins is Jarvis, Julie Fulton is Judith Resnik, Brian Kerwin is Michael Smith, and Joe Morton is Ron McNair.

Sample dialogue in this scene: A bubbly McAuliffe says, "I wish we didn't have to wait until tomorrow. I could go out right now and get on board."

The bulk of the story then shifts to flashbacks; the first being July 19, 1985, when McAuliffe was named schoolteacher-designate to go into space. She squeals and hugs her fellow competitors as if she's just won a beauty pageant.

Snippets from the home lives of most of the astronauts are shown. Smith and his wife are portrayed dancing romantically together on one of their rare evenings at home alone. His wife says to him, "I don't know how you can be so terrific as an astronaut. And then come home and be a wonderful husband and father. It touches me so." The song is Bette Midler's Wind Beneath My Wings.

There is one redeeming quality to Challenger _ and that oddly enough is when the story leans toward the technical, explaining how cold weather and O-ring erosion caused the shuttle to explode.

It's also fascinating to hear the discussions behind the decision-making that launched the shuttle on that freezing morning.

When the story swings in this direction, the acting gets tougher, the dialogue better, the story becomes more interesting. Included in this segment is a fine performance from Peter Boyle, who plays Roger Boisjoly, an engineer for Morton-Thiokol, the manufacturer of the critical O-rings.

Boisjoly was one of the strongest voices in raising questions about the shuttle's safety. This is powerful, from the scenes of a shuttle inspector telling the control room that the icicle-laden launch pad looks like something out of Doctor Zhivago to the pressure building among the space bigwigs to get the shuttle up on schedule.

Challenger's executive producer, George Englund Sr., explained that the rights to Boisjoly's story were acquired, but no others. This explains why his presence on screen seems less fabricated.

Another fine performance is from Lane Smith who plays Larry Mulloy, the director of the solid rocket booster project from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

But the technical side to the TV movie is based on data from the various NASA and government investigations, including the infamous conference call between the decision-makers before the launch.

This is a shocking scene, because it's Mulloy's position that Morton-Thiokol hadn't proved that the shuttle wasn't safe to fly under such cold temperatures. Yet there were doubts because there were no tests on O-rings at temperatures that low.

Challenger doesn't end with the explosion, but instead a few melodramatic touches that could have been dispensed with. One of them focuses on Michael Smith's wife. It's the morning of the launch, and she is looking at a deflated balloon space rocket during a coffee gathering NASA had arranged for the families. She says, "Gee, I hope that's not an omen."

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