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story.lead_photo.caption This image released by Netflix shows Challenger 7 on the launchpad in a scene from "Challenger: The Final Flight." The four-part series about the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster premieres Wednesday. (NASA/Netflix via AP)

NEW YORK -- Many Americans have vivid memories of Jan. 28, 1986.

That was the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded over a chilly Florida, just seconds after liftoff. School children across the country had tuned in to see Christa McAuliffe become the first teacher in space.

One person watching was Steven Leckart, a space-obsessed elementary school kid. Like everyone else, he was shocked by the blast and felt the slow, sickening realization that all seven aboard were gone.

"I remember wanting to be an astronaut and I remember wanting to go to space. And then I remember Challenger completely shattering my dream for that," he recalled.

Leckart has returned to that dark day as co-director of the four-part Netflix documentary series "Challenger: The Final Flight," executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Glen Zipper. It premieres Wednesday.

The series approaches the disaster less like a post-mortem and more like a drama. It explores NASA history and the lives of the seven lost astronauts, why the accident occurred and the inquest that followed.

Zipper and Leckart conceived of it in 2015 while looking to make something personal. Both had seen the disaster as boys but could only remember the name of one astronaut aboard Challenger: McAuliffe. Who were the other six?

The more they dug, the more they found extraordinary people: Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space and Ronald McNair was the second African American. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman.

"We wanted to humanize these astronauts and wanted you to know these characters and understand the human side of this whole story," co-director Daniel Junge said.

Watching the series was a "rollercoaster ride of emotion" for June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee and who helped establish the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

"There is sadness and as a reminder of that tremendous private grief that was made so public," Scobee Rodgers said. But there is also home movies of her late husband having fun with family and friends. "There are wonderful snippets of joy."

She credited the filmmakers for telling a story "no one else has ever been able to do. There's been many, many stories, but they give it the serious respect that it deserves by telling the whole story."

This image released by Netflix shows members of the Challenger 7 crew, from left, Ellison S. Onizuka; Mike Smith; Christa McAuliffe; Dick Scobee; Gregory Jarvis; Judith Resnik; and Ronald McNair in episode 2 of "Challenger: The Final Flight." The four-part series about the 1986  Challenger space shuttle disaster premieres Wednesday. (NASA/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows members of the Challenger 7 crew, from left, Ellison S. Onizuka; Mike Smith; Christa McAuliffe; Dick Scobee; Gregory Jarvis; Judith Resnik; and Ronald McNair in episode 2 of "Challenger: The Final Flight." The four-part series about the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster premieres Wednesday. (NASA/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows a scene from "Challenger: The Final Flight." The four-part series about the 1986  Challenger space shuttle disaster premieres Wednesday. (NASA/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows a scene from "Challenger: The Final Flight." The four-part series about the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster premieres Wednesday. (NASA/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows members of the Challenger 7 crew, from left, Ellison S. Onizuka; Barbara Morgan, Dick Scobee, Christa McAuliffe, Judith Resnik, Mike Smith, and Ronald McNair in episode 2 of "Challenger: The Final Flight." The four-part series about the 1986  Challenger space shuttle disaster premieres Wednesday. (NASA/Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows members of the Challenger 7 crew, from left, Ellison S. Onizuka; Barbara Morgan, Dick Scobee, Christa McAuliffe, Judith Resnik, Mike Smith, and Ronald McNair in episode 2 of "Challenger: The Final Flight." The four-part series about the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster premieres Wednesday. (NASA/Netflix via AP)

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