In the months leading up to Jan. 28, 1986, the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded and everyone aboard was killed, there were ominous portents.
As journalist Kevin Cook recounts in his solid, gripping new book, “The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster,” the bad signs piled up: A teenage gunman had entered the New Hampshire high school where McAuliffe taught social studies and was killed by police after taking hostages. When McAuliffe and other astronaut hopefuls took a trip to an amusement park, a young employee, trying to impress them, got tangled in the machinery of a ride and died.
The shuttle’s launch was delayed multiple times because of issues with a bolt in the locking mechanism of the hatch, with a computer error message, with high winds. By the time the Challenger finally launched, it was in weather much colder than any shuttle had faced. It was so cold that crews knocked icicles off the launch tower with broomsticks, Cook writes, and the launchpad toilet froze.
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According to Cook, a veteran reporter who assembled “The Burning Blue” from new interviews and existing sources, McAuliffe’s parents had a bad feeling as they watched from the VIP bleachers.
“I’d take her off that thing if I could get out there,” McAuliffe’s father told her mother.
“Even if you could,” she said, “she wouldn’t come.”
McAuliffe, 37, had won a nationwide contest to become the first teacher in space. Married to her high school sweetheart, with two young children, she was, as one magazine dubbed her, “America’s most ordinary celebrity.” She was a fierce advocate for teachers, a feminist and an outspoken Democrat, much to the unhappiness of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which asked her to tone it down.
She wasn’t a scientist, but “NASA had science up the wazoo,” writes Cook, and wanted someone who could publicly revive enthusiasm for the shuttle program, widely regarded as expensive and boring — nothing bad had ever happened to a shuttle. They hoped the plucky, dauntless McAuliffe would serve as a nostalgic link to the early days of the space program, when celebrity astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and John Glenn were viewed as beloved pioneers. “They wanted a teacher who’d be good on the Johnny Carson show,” one of McAuliffe’s fellow contestants told Cook. “Someone who could help make the public love space again.”
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Author Kevin Cook. (Pamela Marin)
McAuliffe became one of the most famous women in the United States almost instantly, to the initial resentment of some in the Challenger’s publicity-averse crew. She was a “walking, talking publicity stunt,” they thought, whose coveted shuttle seat could have gone to an actual astronaut. McAuliffe’s ostensible role on the shuttle was to teach science lessons from space. She would have little else to do.
By launch day, the crew, led by venerated commander Dick Scobee, was tightly bonded. McAuliffe had grown especially close to Judy Resnik, a brilliant and glamorous pilot who had been the second American woman in space. The Challenger crew was unusually diverse: Physicist Ron McNair was the second Black man in space; mission specialist Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American.
Compact and suspenseful even as it breaks little new ground, the bulk of “The Burning Blue” is devoted to McAuliffe and her grueling months of flight training, which included escape drills even though no escape was possible. Shuttles that flew before 1982 had ejector seats, Cook writes, mainly because NASA thought their presence might reassure the astronauts, but the Challenger did not. It also had no parachutes.
Cook offers a detailed, heart-rending and frequently terrifying accounting of what it must have felt like to be part of the Challenger crew that day: the traditional launch day cake they promised to eat when they got back, the hours of delay spent strapped uncomfortably in their seats, knees above their heads, the roiling violence of liftoff.
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The Challenger broke up 73 seconds into its flight after the rubber O-rings that helped seal its rocket booster joints malfunctioned in the cold. This led to a hot gas leak, which led to an explosive fireball. Communications and power to the crew cabin were severed, though the cabin itself remained largely intact.
“In the first minutes after the explosion, when the world realized that Christa and the others were lost, they were still alive,” Cook writes. The crew survived at least 30 seconds, and perhaps more than two minutes, after the initial explosion was witnessed live on television by millions of terrified schoolchildren.
It’s unclear whether the crew understood what was happening. We know that pilot Michael J. Smith said “Uh-oh” right before all communication was lost, possibly because he saw fire out his window, Cook writes. We know they followed their training; some of their personal air packs were activated, and emergency switches thrown. We know they didn’t burn to death. They may have died of depressurization, or still been alive when their cabin crashed into the waters off the Florida coast. By the time their bodies were recovered in early March, NASA pathologists were unable to determine how they died. Or if they knew, they weren’t saying.
“The Burning Blue” is careful in its examination of the political and emotional fallout from the crash. Like most events here, it’s presented with little editorializing. The crash triggered a national outpouring of grief rivaled only by 9/11 and an epidemic of finger-pointing. A presidential commission under orders from Reagan not to embarrass NASA wound up roasting it instead.
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It was alleged that the agency, humiliated by delays and squeezed by the White House, ignored safety concerns in its haste to launch. According to Cook, an engineer at contractor Morton Thiokol was so worried about the O-rings, he had sent a warning memo in 1985. “Its last line read: This is a red flag.” Employees meeting the night before the launch argued unsuccessfully for the mission to be scrubbed but were pressured into changing their minds.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, one of the commission’s more skeptical members, added his own appendix to their report, asking for greater transparency from NASA and a more realistic assessment of space travel’s risks. “In the end, he wrote, ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.’ ”