Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

NASA Guy Cries Foul Over Challenger Film

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (CN) - The Discovery Channel distorted facts in a film about the 1986 Challenger disaster, depicting a former NASA manager as "a liar, a cover-up artist, and an uninformed manager," the man claims in a $14 million defamation complaint.

Judson Lovingood sued Discovery Communications, The Science Channel, The Discovery Channel, BBC Films, The Open University and Kate Gartside, in Madison County Court.

He claims Discovery sacrificed the truth "to satisfy an appetite for conflict," in showing that NASA ignored made-up calculations, which supposedly led to the disaster.

"The Challenger Disaster," a film based on the failed launch of Space Shuttle Challenger, aired on Nov. 16, 2013 on The Science Channel and The Discovery Channel, attracting millions of viewers in the United States.

The film, which showed the presidential investigation into the January 1986 accident that claimed the lives of the space shuttle's seven crew members, became the network's most-watched program of the year and the third most-watched program in Science Channel history. Discovery Communications and BBC Films co-produced the film, which was written by Gartside and shot in South Africa.

Lovingood, a former NASA shuttle projects office deputy manager, says the film, which claims to be based on a true story, depicts him as a weak and crazy manager who ignored crucial information about total mission failure probabilities, at the expense of the astronauts' lives.

Actor Sean Michael starred as Lovingood, while William Hurt played the role of Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate physicist who participated in the presidential investigation.

"The movie/film begins with the bold typed announcement: 'This Is A True Story,'" the lawsuit states. "It then announces in type, 'It is based on the book "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" by Richard and Gweneth Feynman and Ralph Leighton and interviews with key individuals.' No reference is made to any review of the actual transcript of hearings and Report of the Presidential Commission. Pertinent and significant aspects of this movie/film are not true (as represented) and are, in fact, false and defamatory. Pertinent and significant aspects of this movie/film are falsely created in a clear effort to create a wholly incorrect and false account of the facts to make the film more dramatic while sacrificing the truth and the character of plaintiff under the disguise of having emphatically announced 'This Is a True Story.'

"In the opening scene of the movie/film 'The Challenger Disaster,' Dr. Feynman is teaching a class of students. Dr. Feynman (William Hurt) states to the class, in pertinent part: 'Nothing is known with absolute certainty. It's how to handle doubt and uncertainty ... Science teaches us what the rules of evidence are. We mess with that at our peril.' Unfortunately for this plaintiff, the movie/film ignores or manipulates the rules of evidence and fact while messing with them to manufacture and create false facts in a deliberate effort to be more entertaining and dramatic at the peril of truth. All of this is done under the masquerade of telling the viewers 'This Is A True Story.'" (Parentheses in complaint).

The movie shows Feynman following up on his suspicion that the shuttle's main engine was responsible for the failure, not the solid rocket boosters, as previously suspected. The commission concluded later in the movie that Feynman's theory was wrong.


"The movie/film seeks to create facts that did not exist to make statements on the probability of total mission failure defined as: (all components of the shuttle with loss of crew life) when the actual investigation and pre-launch determinations were focused on the boosters or separate components of this complex shuttle," the complaint states. "The movie/film failed to make the very significant distinction among probability estimates for failure among solid rocket boosters, liquid rocket engines and other components versus total shuttle mission failure and twisted evaluations that NASA had determined for the components into a false picture of probability of total mission failure with loss of life to the crew."

Lovingood says Feynman's book made the distinction between total shuttle failure versus component failure, but the film ignored the difference. He claims NASA engineers estimated the probability of component failure to be 1 in 200.

"In the movie/film, this very specific question about the probability of failure of the main engines is made up and falsified to be a probability determination of failure of the total shuttle in flight," the lawsuit states. "In a dramatic scene represented to have taken place during sworn testimony before the Commission, plaintiff is shown to be seated at a table with two other NASA representatives giving testimony to the Commission. A name plate before plaintiff states that it is Judson Lovingood. Seated beside him at the table is an actor playing the role of Mulloy, a NASA employee. Dr. Feynman is shown as asking Mulloy:

"'Can you remind me what NASA calculates the probability of shuttle failure to be? Failure meaning the loss of vehicle and the death of the entire crew?'

"The movie then shows someone represented as a commission member who says, 'Dr. Lovingood?' Plaintiff is depicted as stating under oath that it was 1 in 100,000. Dr. Feynman then says in the movie/film to Lovingood: 'That's not scientific calculations. That's a wish.' Dr. Feynman goes on to say that it's interesting that that figure of 1 in 100,000 is very different from NASA's own engineers stating that the probability of success is only 99.4 percent (reference to the Ivory Soap slogan on the paper addressing a different question) which Dr. Feynman says translates to a probability of failure of loss of vehicle and death of the entire crew as 1 in 200. The clear statement and depiction was that Lovingood had lied about the probability of total failure being 1 in 100,000 when NASA's own engineers had said it was 1 in 200. This movie scene never took place in real life at any hearing. Plaintiff was never asked to give any testimony as depicted and he did not give testimony to the question shown in the movie in this made up scene. No NASA engineer had ever written on a piece of paper, stated or testified that NASA had actually determined that the probability of total shuttle failure 'with loss of vehicle and the death of the entire crew' was 1 in 200. Instead, Lovingood had actually given Dr. Feynman the official NASA written report that calculated the failure probability for liquid rocket failure after this informal meeting described in the book as set forth above." (Parentheses in complaint.)

Lovingood claims the film intentionally misrepresented a reference to engine failure probability figures to show that he was covering up a high probability of total mission failure. He claims it ignored information about other components and safety redundancies designed to prevent total mission failure even if an engine failed.

"This never happened," the lawsuit states. "The records of the Commission show it never happened. The book of Dr. Feynman shows it never happened. Yet the movie/film depicts plaintiff as a liar, a cover-up artist, and an uninformed manager who fails to communicate with his engineers who are stating that the probability of total shuttle failure was only 1 in 200 and this presented a danger to the astronauts who were not told of such a high probability of failure."

Lovingood claims the film vilified him and created a bogus communication problem between NASA management and engineers to satisfy an appetite for conflict.

He seeks $14 million in damages for defamation and invasion of privacy.

Lovingood is represented by Stephen Heninger with Heninger Garrison Davis of Birmingham.

Representatives for Discovery Communications did not respond to a request for comment.

Challenger launched on its 10th mission on Jan. 28, 1986. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, live television coverage showed the shuttle break apart and disappear from view. The seven-astronaut crew, led by a Vietnam War veteran, included two women, one of them 37-year-old social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe. The Challenger disaster stopped NASA's space shuttle program for almost three years as the agency investigated the accident.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.