Five months later, the reason — two of the shuttle's O-rings had failed during launch — was made public, a major finding of the presidential commission formed to solve the mystery.
A vocal member of that commission was Richard Feynman, a world-renowned physicist and Nobel laureate whose sharp mind and dogged spirit led him to the design flaw, in the process exposing negligence and cover-ups by both NASA and the contractor supplying it the O-rings.
A new film, "The Challenger Disaster," stars William Hurt as Feynman (with co-stars including Brian Dennehy and Bruce Greenwood). Airing Saturday at 9 p.m. EST on Science Channel, it depicts his unswervable search for the truth, even in the face of resistance from his colleagues.
"In a way, Feynman interested me more than the project did," says Hurt. "This is mostly an event story, but I thought we could allow character to exist within the narrative and lead to a greater conclusion: Human courage is really what it's all about, and listening to your own instinctive, loving skeptic. That's what Feynman did."
It's a nippy fall day and Hurt is discussing the film, and many other things, with a reporter as he walks his dog, Lucy, in Manhattan's Riverside Park.
The 63-year-old Hurt, a TV, stage and Oscar-winning film star (for "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), has been taking an acting break this fall to play a different role, that of student, as this former Tufts theology major plunges, with undisguised humility, into a pair of courses at Columbia University: computer science and Indo-Tibetan Hinduism.
"I'm working pretty hard," he says with clear understatement as he unsnaps the leash worn by Lucy, a gentle Doberman pinscher-Labrador mix, who is nibbling some grass and contemplating the joggers.
"Your mind, your heart must learn to value yourself," Hurt says, pivoting back to what Feynman taught him. "That's where your answers will come from: Learn to bear your frustrations gladly, 'cause they're your teacher. YOU are your teacher."
An actor often outspoken about the frustration he bears as an actor ("I have a hard time finding work that will allow me to do what I know how to do, because they won't give me time to prepare") has only good things to say about shooting "The Challenger Disaster."
A co-production with the BBC, the film was directed by James Hawes ("Doctor Who," ''Fanny Hill"), whom Hurt hails as "a great human being and a great director."
Under Hawes' stewardship, Hurt says, he got what he craves as an actor: "Not to be showing off, not to be insecure, but to open myself to a new look at life."
Hawes, speaking by phone from England, describes their first meeting while he was on a trip to New York last fall.
The pair took a stroll to visit, fittingly, the shuttle Enterprise prototype installed nearby at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex.
"The sun was shining," Hawes recalls, "and we had the most extraordinary walk. By the end of it, we had a bond."
Once shooting commenced in South Africa, Hawes goes on, "I arranged for William to have a lesson on the bongos, because Feynman notoriously played them. I'm not usually that Method, but I knew that he is a man who loves his research. I'll never forget sitting there in the dying light of a South African evening with William Hurt and a bongo teacher hammering out rhythms."
In Riverside Park, Hurt describes his fascination with the character whose rhythms he channeled.
"I was so grafted to Feynman as a spirit," he says. "A spirit like that, you can legitimately worship. They don't want your enslavement, they want your freedom. Feynman wants your freedom!
"Look! Here comes a cop!" he interrupts himself as he spies a parks department golf cart. "He'll arrest you," Hurt tells Lucy as he re-snaps the leash the law requires her to wear. "You'd go to prison. We'd go to prison together."
Feynman died in 1988 at age 69 of the cancer he was battling while on the commission, but his spirit lives on, including, Hurt hopes, in this film, and in the interest the film might spur in what Feynman stood for. That sort of impact, Hurt says, is what makes drama great.
"Being interesting for its own sake is worthless," he declares. "You have to be interested in a theme: The question of who we are, why we are, should be considered carefully and audaciously. Just attracting attention for its own sake is chaos."
Just then, the cawing of birds attracts attention overhead.
"When the crows caw, you know the interview's over," says Hurt, amused. "They're here to tell us we're no longer being useful, you know what I mean?"
With that, he and Lucy head off to a neighborhood pet store. It's time to buy her a treat.