THE TV MOVIE "The Challenger Disaster"

WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 9 p.m. on Science Channel and Discovery

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off on a cold January morning in 1986 and 73 seconds later exploded, killing all seven astronauts on- board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, 37. This docudrama picks up the story in the sobering, tragedy-haunted moments afterward, when a presidential commission is convened, chaired by former Secretary of State Williams Rogers (Brian Dennehy). Other members include U.S. Air Force Gen. Donald Kutyna (Bruce Greenwood) and astronaut Sally Ride (Eve Best) -- who both understand the intricacies at the intersection of science and politics -- and Dr. Richard Feynman (William Hurt), the world's leading theoretical physicist and a leading renegade, too. Soon Feynman begins to suspect the so-called

"O-ring" -- a rubbery material that joined the solid rocket boosters -- may be at fault. Later, at a hearing, he demonstrates that it lacks resilience at low temperatures, even when dipped in a glass of cold water.

MY SAY Hurt is genetically incapable of turning in a substandard performance -- whether in "Damages," or name-your-favorite-Hurt-flick, or even in this quiet, intelligent film. So, yeah, he's good here and so for the most part is "The Challenger Disaster," which seeks to revive one of the greatest careers in the history of science and also serves as a reminder that to make an omelet you must break a few eggs, or squeeze a few O-rings.

Hurt's Feynman is irascible, inquisitive, arrogant, passionate, beset with bad hair days and singularly devoted to one outcome: the truth, or the approximation of it. Feynman, one of the fathers of quantum electrodynamics, famously observed that absolute truth -- much like the exact position of a subatomic particle -- is an impossible goal, so best to get as close to it as you can. A famously tough critic, too, Feynman would probably even like this performance.

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Beyond Hurt, "The Challenger Disaster" merges into the "dutiful" lane. It covers some of the record, ignores the contributions of most of the other boldface names and offers a too-shallowly explored conspiratorial angle. But Feynman's moral still stands: "For a successful technology," he wrote, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

BOTTOM LINE Quiet, intelligent, worth checking out

GRADE B+