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TV review: The Space Shuttle That Fell To Earth, The Drought, and Monty Don’s Spanish Gardens

01 March 2024

BBC/Mindhouse Productions/NASA

The launch of Columbia in 2003. Its story was told in The Space Shuttle That Fell To Earth (BBC2, Monday of last week)

The launch of Columbia in 2003. Its story was told in The Space Shuttle That Fell To Earth (BBC2, Monday of last week)

FROM the outset, we were overshadowed by knowing how The Space Shuttle That Fell To Earth (BBC2, Monday of last week) would end: in an explosion over Texas on the Shuttle’s final descent to earth, killing all seven crew members. This moving and tragic documentary, the second of three, was composed of contemporary news footage and present-day testimonies from bereaved family members and NASA officials.

By 2003, this was the space shuttle Columbia’s 28th mission: intended for a life of 50 flights, the craft had required more extensive refitting than expected, and was significantly behind the thrust of technological advance. At the launch, a small, unexpected explosion was noticed; analysis concluded that a lump of insulating foam had fallen from the booster rocket and hit Columbia’s wing. NASA engineers and bosses concluded that it could not cause serious damage, and vetoed potential corroboration from, for example, military spy satellites.

We saw the despair of those NASA personnel still haunted by their superiors’ failure to listen to their fears, and their guilt at not having pushed harder, at not daring to put their own careers on the line by more thoroughgoing whistle-blowing; and the families’ anger and sense of betrayal at losing the loved ones because of a systemic fear of jeopardising a corporate reputation, and the refusal to listen to any unwelcome message. It was yet more damning evidence of how vast organisations undermine basic morality in their pursuit of success and profit.

Two other aspects also struck me: if the NASA command had acknowledged that catastrophic damage had probably occurred, should they have told the crew? It seems that, once the craft was launched, there was no way of retrieving it other than by the completion of its mission. Would you tell seven people that a few days later they are going to burn to death? As the shuttle started its fatal descent, the crew were unaware that their craft was breaking up around them. For all their astonishing technology, they could not see what they looked like from outside.

The Drought (available to stream on Channel 4’s website) is a promising Spanish global-warming-fuelled crime thriller. As a vast reservoir dries up, it reveals a pair of corpses, clearly murdered. Consistent with the genre, corruption, criminal collusion, and compromising relationships all gradually surface, in parallel, from the murky depths. The men are all rugged and handsome, and the women glamorous and gorgeous; and the Iberian sun is brilliant.

For another angle on this drought, Monty Don’s Spanish Gardens (BBC2, Friday of last week) offers a delightful prospect as he criss-crosses the country, celebrating a wonderful range, ancient and modern, with roots in Islamic and Christian (particularly monastic) heritage. Particularly impressive are those modern gardens designed to thrive with practically no rainfall.

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