An unforgettable moment in time: Northampton writer’s new book revisits the 1986 space shuttle disaster

  • STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton author Kevin Cook revisits the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster in his new book, “The Burning Blue.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton author Kevin Cook revisits the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster in his new book, “The Burning Blue.”  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “The Burning Blue” offers fresh portraits of the crew members of the ill-fated Challenger, including Massachusetts native Christa McAuliffe, the “Teacher in Space.” 

  • The horrific aftermath of the explosion of the booster rockets of the Challenger was seen by millions in real time on Jan. 28, 1986. Below, author Kevin Cook revisits the disaster in “The Burning Blue.” NASA

  • Christa McAuliffe, second from left in back row, was joined on the flight by a second civilian, aircraft engineer Greg Jarvis, to McAuliffe’s left. NASA

  • The space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Jan. 28, 1986. Image courtesy NASA/public domain

  • Ice encrusts the launch tower the morning of the Challenger liftoff. Record cold loosened seals called O-rings on one of the booster rockets, allowing hot gas to escape and ignite. Image courtesy NASA/public domain

  • NASA’s “Crawler” delivers the Challenger to the launch pad on Cape Canaveral. Courtesy Photo from U.S. civilian/NASA/public domain

  • Teacher Christa McAuliffe rides with her children Caroline and Scott during a parade in 1985 down Main Street in Concord, N.H. McAuliffe was one of seven crew members killed in the Challenger explosion. AP

  • This Sept. 26, 1985 photo made available by NASA shows astronaut Sharon Christa McAuliffe. The high school teacher from Concord, N.H., never got to teach from space. She perished during the 1986 launch of shuttle Challenger, along with her six crewmates. (NASA via AP) —AP

  • The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes on Jan. 28, 1986, shortly after lifting off from Kennedy Space Center. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 7/2/2021 9:07:22 AM

Before the terrible pictures from the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. became embedded in our collective memories, there was another image, of another disaster, that left a searing memory for millions of Americans.

On the fateful day of Jan. 28, 1986, NASA’s space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing the crew of seven, including Christa McAuliffe, a high-spirited social studies teacher who had won a nationwide contest to be the first “Teacher in Space’’ — in the process becoming a national celebrity and spokeswoman for teachers everywhere.

Television images of the explosion, just 72 seconds after the shuttle and its giant booster rockets had lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, were replayed endlessly, and in the weeks and months that followed, details that were revealed about the shortcuts and mistakes NASA had made to get this particular space shuttle in the air would darken the tragedy.

In his new book, “The Burning Blue,” Northampton writer Kevin Cook vividly recalls the story, combining an extensive review of past sources with fresh interviews with many people connected to the disaster: NASA engineers, former astronauts, family of the dead crew members. In tight, lean prose, he sketches a memorable portrait of McAuliffe and the Challenger crew members, and he examines a little-known aspect of the disaster: the crew survived the initial explosion and likely tried to steer the space shuttle cabin back to earth.

In a recent phone interview, Cook, a one-time editor for Sports Illustrated and the author of 10 books, said he can still recall where he was (in southern California) when the Challenger exploded, and he remembers being pretty familiar at the time with the details of Christa McAuliffe’s story “because she had become a real celebrity. But I couldn’t remember anything about the other crew members.”

With the renewed attention in recent years on space flight, and the creation of private companies to take public figures such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson into space, Cook said he was interested in revisiting the Challenger disaster, in particular to find out more about the other crew members and their team dynamics — and to remind readers of the decisions made without the astronauts’ knowledge that led to their deaths.

“I think when you look at these initiatives today, like a private-public partnership to send a mission to Mars, you have to be concerned you might see the same cost-cutting measures and political pressures” that contributed to the Challenger disaster, he said.

Reaching for the stars

In “The Burning Blue,” Cook traces McAuliffe’s youth — she was born Sharon Christa Corrigan in 1948 — in Framingham, Massachusetts, her marriage to her high school sweetheart, Steve McAuliffe, and the family they raised in Concord, New Hampshire, where she became a popular middle school and then high school teacher.

A perpetually busy person, she only filled out the application to become part of the NASA space shuttle program at the last minute, and she never dreamed she’d win the slot.

As Cook notes, NASA and the administration of President Ronald Reagan were looking to revive flagging public interest in the nation’s space program. At the same time, the Reagan administration wanted to deflect criticism it had received for its cuts to education funding. In 1984, Reagan, seeking reelection, announced the national competition to have a teacher take part in a space shuttle launch and perform science lessons from the shuttle for schoolchildren across the nation.

“It was essentially a publicity stunt, but [McAuliffe] was no pawn,” Cook said. “She really seized her moment to showcase the importance of teaching and to tell the story of other teachers, the vital role they play in so many students’ lives.”

The novelty of the story, and McAuliffe’s outgoing personality, quickly made her a media darling, which created some initial resentment among other crew members and NASA staff — highly trained astronauts and engineers who were focused on a very technical mission, not interviews with the press.

Yet Cook says McAuliffe’s hard work preparing for the mission, and her down-to-earth persona, eventually helped her form a strong bond with the Challenger crew, especially Judith Resnik, the other female member. Resnik was a brilliant scientist (and classically trained pianist) who had little patience with reporters (or the “boys’ club” attitude of some astronauts), but she gave McAuliffe much help in prepping for her science classes.

“You couldn’t really imagine two people more different from one another, but they became great friends, and to me that was one of the highlights of the story,” Cook said.

“The Burning Blue” — the title is taken from a poem by a British-American World War II fighter pilot about the exhilaration of flying — also offers well-crafted portraits of the other crew members, NASA’s most diverse to that point. Physicist Ron McNair was the just the second Black man in space, and mission specialist Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American. Commander Dick Scobee and Pilot Mike Smith, in turn, were both “red-hot pilots,” as Cook puts it.

Those portraits and Cook’s well-paced narrative bring tension and drama to a story whose outcome is already so well known. He examines the pressure within NASA to launch the Challenger after a number of delays due to technical issues. The space shuttle lifted off in record-low temperatures, causing seals called O-rings to loosen on one rocket booster and begin leaking hot gas right before takeoff, which led to the fatal explosion once the craft was airborne.

Also gripping is Cook’s speculative reconstruction of the crew’s last minutes — the shuttle cabin crashed into the Atlantic Ocean a little under three minutes after the explosion — as post-crash examination showed some of the crew’s emergency oxygen packs, as well as emergency flight controls, had been activated.

“Most people thought they died in the explosion,” Cook said. “The fact is they were still alive and probably trying to steer back to attempt a landing. That’s not a state secret, but it’s not well known … NASA kept quiet on the details so as not to dwell on what was already a terrible tragedy.”

You also can’t help being chilled by Cook’s description of a teleconference that took place the evening before the launch, when a host of officials from NASA and the company that designed the rocket boosters, Morton Thiokol, discussed potential problems with the booster O-rings. When Morton Thiokol engineers said the launch should be scratched, one company official, opposing any delay, said, “It’s time for you … to take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.”

Cook, who has primarily written about sports, made an earlier foray into another fairly recent chapter of U.S. history. His 2014 book, “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America,” reexamined an infamous case in New York City in 1964 in which a young woman was stabbed to death while over three dozen witnesses ostensibly did nothing. His book, though, turns that whole argument upside down.

He’s currently working on another book about history, a subject that’s also been part of his sports writing (his book “Tommy’s Honor” profiled a Scottish father and son of the 1800s who are considered pioneers of professional golf).

His biggest takeaway from “The Burning Blue”? Among a number of considerations, Cook says, “There’s the obvious heroism of the [Challenger] crew — that’s something that will stay with me forever.” He was also touched that Steve McAuliffe, who has shunned interviews since his wife’s death, responded to a request for a comment for the book.

When Cook asked him what people should remember about Christa McAuliffe, Steve McAuliffe wrote, “As an ordinary person who embraced an extraordinary opportunity,” and, “As a person who brought joy and inspiration to those fortunate enough to know her, and inspired people who only knew of her.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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