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.

Never Forget


I wrote this six years ago, but thought I would share it here today:

I always feel a twinge of guilt on January 28.

I remember where I was when I heard. I wasn’t born when Kennedy was assasinated, but like most of my generation, I remember where I was when I heard that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded.

I was in the boys’ locker room for the gym at Huntsville Middle School. I was in P.E. when it happened, so I didn’t watch it. It was not until later in the day that I would first see those indelible images, and thankfully knew what to expect by the time I finally saw them. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to watch that as it happened.

I was in the boys’ locker room for the gym at Huntsville Middle School. We were getting ready, as the news began to spread. The boy that told me had not actually seen it, he had heard from someone else. Who in turn had no doubt heard from someone else. But the person who told me had no emperical knowledge, just the word of mouth he had heard.

I don’t feel the twinge of guilt because I initially scoffed at him. I feel the twinge of guilt because I think I actually did reassure him.

That he was wrong. That he had heard wrong, or the person who had told him was wrong.
Because it could not happen. It simply couldn’t.

The Space Shuttle … the Space Shuttle, among the greatest of man’s creations … does not just blow up.

It doesn’t.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, it’s the Space Shuttle.

It couldn’t happen.

But it did.

I feel a twinge of guilt every January 28 at the thought that that student, whoever he was, had to find out twice that day that Challenger had exploded.

So that’s my story. That’s where I was; that’s how I heard. Where were you?