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.

The Man Named Ray Leyden, Part IV

This is a serialized short fiction piece that we, The Rocket City Bloggers, are collaboratively writing for our Downtown with the RCB Event on January 16 at the office in downtown Huntsville.

Part One is at Huntsville Hashtag.

Part Two is at Capturing Average.

Part Three is at I Write Words on the Internet!

And now …

The Man Named Ray Leyden, Part IV


… yet another flashback, this one to the early ’80s. This time, he was standing in the middle of The Mall, tossing pennies into the iconic fountain, with Lovemann’s visible in the distance and a yearning in his stomach to head a little ways down the Parkway to Dunavant’s Mall for lunch at Britling’s Buffet.

“Enough,” Ray said to himself, as he realized passersby were giving him strange looks as he ambled sporadically in the midst of reveries of Huntsville past. Summoning all his willpower, he decided that he was going to eschew any further recollections of Twickenham Station or Argosy or the Whitesburg Drive-In long enough to finally actually open the door to the building, despite the nigh-overwhelming temptation to fondly recall going bowling next door to the previous Huntsville Times building on the Parkway.

As he entered, he was struck by how modern and professional the new office was. He went upstairs, politely greeting the many friendly people who spoke to him, while keeping an eye out for Sandy’s familiar face. Being honest with himself, he was still a bit intimidated by the whole blogging idea. He knew there were some good stories in his father’s journal, but would other people think so? And what would these seasoned bloggers think of his idea to try and build a blog around those stories? It was hard to imagine any of these people wanting to discourage someone from blogging — you could tell there was a lot of passion in the room — but he certainly was in no hurry to discover he was the exception. So, one step at a time — find Sandy first.

Well — OK, maybe find Sandy second, he thought to himself as he passed a table full of food from The Eaves. If you’re going to procrastinate, you might as well do it in style. And sampling the wares brought by The Brew Stooges wouldn’t hurt either. With a plate and glass in hand, he resumed his search, eventually spotting Sandy across the room, deep in conversation. Rather than go join in, Ray decided to use the opportunity to procrastinate a bit more by exploring the office. The open areas he’d seen so far were fascinating, unlike any office space he’d been in before — an environment designed for reporters who spend most of their time wearing out shoe soles beating the streets of Huntsville instead of warming a desk chair. He started peeking into conference rooms, and was amazed at the view of downtown Huntsville.

But then, in the depths of the building, something caught his attention. All of the other rooms had good, Huntsville-themed names. But not this one. Not the “Clark Kent Room.” What did that mean? What lurked behind its door? It didn’t seem to be part of the public touring area, but Ray’s curiosity got the better of him, and he couldn’t help himself.

He quietly turned the knob and pushed open the door. His heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t be. But it was. There, in front of him, right there in the offices in the middle of downtown Huntsville, he found himself staring straight at ___________________.

Part Five will be posted at Growing H.O.P.E.

Come meet the Rocket City Bloggers on January 16 starting at 5:30. We’ll be in the building hanging out with Downtown Huntsville Inc. We’ll have food from The Eaves and drinks from The Brew Stooges. Door prizes and networking opportunities will keep things lively.