The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster
(c) 2021 Kevin Cook
So fickle is the human mind that even Apollo could not keep the public terribly excited for very long after the first moon landings, and the Shuttle program — despite its ambition and engineering complexity — only briefly resparked interest. The shuttles were trucks in space, doing routine work. NASA hoped to revive public passion for space (and safeguard its funding) by expanding spaceflight participation, opening seats on the Shuttle to various categories of civilians. The first would be a “Teacher in Space”, using the unique environment of the shuttle to teach lessons in microgravity. The public relations effort was a triumph: the woman chosen became an instant celebrity, and when her flight lifted off, it was under a national spotlight: everyone was watching. And then — the inconcievable. Everyone saw the booster disintegrate, everyone saw the shuttle explode, and everyone saw the lives of the crew snuffed out in a moment. So ended NASA’s civilian inclusion program, and the delusion that traveling to space was ‘routine’. The Burning Blue is both a biography of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher chosen, and a brief history of the impact Challenger had on NASA’s space program.
Despite being a space junkie as a kid (and now), the Challenger disaster never hit home for me: I was only a year old at the time, and I was more interested in Apollo and space stations than the shuttle that bridged them. When Columbia was destroyed in 2003, it became my generation’s space shuttle disaster; Challenger remained a page from the history books, although I got hints from time to time that for those watching, it carried a lot of emotional weight. Having read The Burning Blue, I can understand a bit of that now. Christa McAuliffe was chosen not because she was some uberfrauen to be idolized, but because of her attractive ordinariness and passion for teaching: she became, in the six months of her training, an American sweetheart who everyone watching identified with. She was the layman’s dream, an inspiration, someone who offered hope that one day ordinary people could find themselves gazing at the Earth from space. She didn’t have the ego of some Right Stuff-era astronauts, or even some of the Shuttle era astronauts (my interest in reading about Sally Ride declined considerably while reading this): she was the woman next door, who triumphed through a dream coupled to hard work and an unwillingness to quit. Through her we also get to meet the other Challenger seven, the most interesting of whom (to me) was Judy Resnik: Resnik had already earned her golden wings on a prior Shuttle mission, and was McAuliffe’s mentor after realizing the young teacher was taking this seriously, and not just a pretty face in a PR stunt. Resnik had to struggle with being taken seriously herself, as people prized her not for her labor but for her diversity checklist status: she was the First Jew in Space, the Second Woman in Space, etc. Resnik radiated contempt for this, wanting to be known for her own achievements, past and future — after Challenger, she hoped to pursue training that would see her jump from the middeck seats of the Mission Specialists to the front seat of the commander and copilot — something unprecedented, since pilots and specialists were two different career tracks altogether.
The lives of these two women and their five crewmates were destroyed in seconds, their craft compromised by a frozen O-ring. NASA could safely launch twelve shuttles a year, but the demands of the government and its commercial contracts were seeing it push well past recommendations and approach twenty launches a year. So frantic was the pace and so demanding was this on the shuttles that parts were actively cannibalized from flight to flight: when Challenger lifted off, she was carrying parts temporarily borrowed from Columbia. Challenger’s own takeoff had been delayed six times before finally getting the go-ahead to proceed on a wintry morning that doomed it. Still, as the investigation that followed showed, the disaster could have been far worse: the shuttle could have exploded on the pad, destroying the tower itself: instead, a fluke (frozen fuel sealing off a compromised area of the hull) allowed the shuttle to clear the tower and even begin its final ascent before the inevitable happened. Cook then follows the aftermath of the disaster, revaling weaknesses in NASA’s chain of command, its working culture, and its partner relationships. Unfortunately, some of those weaknesses returned some twenty years later.
I can’t fairly compare this to any other Challenger books, this being my first: it was successful in making the disaster more real, in letting the reader get to know the crew (McAuliffe, largely) so well before their deaths. It doesn’t go into much technical detail, though. something like Truth, Lies, and O-Rings is probably more thorough on that front. If you’re new to Challenger like me, though, this definitely strikes me as a good starting point.