Capturing the Stories of Challenger


Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

Without question, the last chapter of Bold They Rise was the hardest to work on.

Not because it required more effort or research or anything like that, but because every word hurt.

Our publisher defined the scope of the book from the outset — the beginning of the program through the Challenger accident. Before we wrote the first words, we knew how the story had to end.

Writing the rest of the book, there was a lot of jumping around. Large portions of later chapters were written before earlier chapters. We just sort of put down the pieces where they fit.

Except the last chapter. Except the Challenger chapter. The end, we saved until last.

Which was pure procrastination. We knew we would have to write it, we just weren’t in any hurry to do so.

Challenger had always been a personal thing for me. I was in middle school when it happened, and I can only imagine that it was for me what the Kennedy assassination was for a previous generation. I was a school kid, far from involved in it, but it hurt. It was a loss.

I’ve written about it every year since. For school writing assignments, newspapers columns, blog posts, I’ve paused today to put thoughts into words, to remember, to ponder the event, its meaning, the years since. I’ve gone from being a middle school student to being part of the team creating NASA’s next launch vehicle. Challenger has gone from a national tragedy to a mandate. I’m not an engineer; I’m not designing the vehicle. But I try, every day, to hold myself to the standard I would want from those who do — “Do good work.”

The crew of Challenger’s 51-L mission were names in the news to me, far removed from my life. Eleven years ago, working for NASA, I’d not met any of Columbia’s final crew. But over the years, I begin to meet the men and women who were risking their lives. After Columbia, there were few flights for which I’d not seen in person members of the crews. It was no longer names in the news. It was people.

During those years, I’ve also had gotten to know people who were in the astronaut corps at the time we lost Challenger. I’d never talked to them about the accident; I’d never had any desire to do so. There were better things to talk about.

Working on this book, however, I did.

Joe Kerwin, one of my co-authors on Homesteading Space, was the medical examiner after the tragedy. For Joe, these were not names in the news. They were his colleagues. They were his friends. And he and his team had to identify what was left of them, and to try to determine what exactly had happened to them in their final moments of life.

We recorded the story. I cannot imagine the experience.

We first submitted the manuscript for the book three years ago today, picking this date as a small tribute.

Today, we’re reading through the manuscript one last time, with a looming deadline to send it back in for publication.

Heather has that chapter in her pile today. I’ll read it again soon. But not today. Not today.

3 Responses

  1. thanks for sharing David. I try to find words, not forced, but genuine every year for the three tragedies that are most public for NASA. Challenger is probably the toughest. I would go home at lunch and watch all the hearings on C-Span after the tragedy. It was tough to see people who did good work still get questioned whether their work was good enough. It was a turning point for me though, for before the accident I was totally detached from NASA, and afterwards I got drawn in and have been close ever since. I know exactly where I was for Apollo One and Columbia, and Challenger, and I will never forget them.

  2. It’s funny. Apollo 1 was before I was born; it was just the astronauts that the Huntsville schools were named after. Columbia I was at Marshall, and it was a much more immediate thing. In some ways, it’s much more personal, but for some reason — maybe because of that — it doesn’t have the same feeling of being a moment that reverberated around the world that Challenger does for me.

  3. I was 9 years old and a true space geek when Apollo 1 happened. It was the first disaster I remember encountering. I was devastated. I thought the trips to the Moon would be canceled and we would never venture beyond.

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