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.

Year 1999: A Space Story

So going through some old stuff over the weekend, I found this story written by elementary-school David. In my retconned biography, I’m going to stay that check-plus convinced me I should pursue writing stories like that professionally.


Farewell To A Friend

Retiring the shuttle was the right thing to do.

I truly believed that. And still do.

Or, at least, that it was a right thing to do, and probably the more right thing to do.

After the loss of Columbia eight years ago today, something had to change.It’s really only been less than five years since the shuttle began flying regularly after that tragedy, and the smaller fleet has done a great job supporting that. But the shuttles are aging, and the fleet is smaller. That’s not to say that they couldn’t fly like this for some time to come, but eventually something would have to be done.

And continuing the shuttle program would have been option. Build, at great expense, an OV-106, a new orbiter from the old mold.  Or build an OV-201, developing from scratch a modern vehicle compatible with the classic shuttle infrastructure. Put the existing orbiters through major upgrades to extend their lifespan.

Or so something new.

And when the decision was made a few years ago to take that last option, I endorsed it as the right thing to do.

The shuttle has incredible capabilities. It will likely be a very long time before there’s another single vehicle with as much capability as the shuttle has. We could continue doing the things the shuttle lets us do for a long time.

But many of those capabilities are currently replicated elsewhere. Expendable rockets let us put satellites in orbit. The International Space Station lets us conduct science in space. Soyuz, for the near term, will let us put astronaut in orbit.

And for all those capabilities, one ability the shuttle does not give us is the ability to leave our planet. We’re confined slightly above our atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to do there. But there are plenty of other places to go as well. The loss of Columbia presented the nation with a choice — you have to make a decision, and either way, you have to do something. Do you keep doing what you’ve been doing, or do you do something new?

I believe it’s time to do something new.

That said …

Having finished the manuscript of a book about the early years of the shuttle program, I’ll admit that last week I had this sudden dawning realization that, “oh, crap, there’s not going to be any more shuttle.”

I understood it, and was OK with it, from a technical perspective. As a space historian, educator and advocate, it’s the right thing to do.

From an emotional perspective … I guess I really hadn’t let myself thing about it from that perspective. You can’t let sentiment stand in the way of doing what’s right.

But, yeah, when I think about playing with shuttle toys as a kid, when I think about seeing the mock-ups at Space Camp while visiting the museum here, when I think about talking to astronauts that flew on it, when I think about following missions over the years, when I think about watching launches in the last couple of years, when I think about how much I’ve written about it over the past eight years at NASA, when I think about the book we just finished, it’s a little overwhelming.

I’m going to miss her.

And I know she’s not gone yet. Sometime later this year, I will write a post about the last flight of the space shuttle program. And it will be done. And that’s a little overwhelming, too. But that’s not this post. It’s not done yet.

This post is to say, it’s coming, but it’s not here yet. Three more launches are still scheduled.

Don’t take them for granted. Watch the launches. If possible, make your way to Florida for lift-off. Follow the missions. Watch the landings.

While you can.