Thank You, Commander

I know this isn’t self-publishing-related, but being a NASA nut it’s Catherine-related and, hey, this is my blog.

Today Commander Chris Hadfield returns to earth from the International Space Station. His stay there has been, I think, NASA’s biggest public relations win since Apollo 11 landed on the moon. He has just been amazing: tweeting images, recording videos and just generally reminding people, in a fun and inspiring way, that there’s not only a Space Station up there but people in it. The bad news for us—the good news for him, I’m sure—is that he returns to earth today. I’m sure his enthusiasm for manned space exploration and his PR skills will be put to good use here as well, but in the meantime, he has created this truly amazing, wonderful, awe-inspiring, delightful, funny and utterly perfect goodbye gift.

I may be heightening expectations here so I’ll just shut up, but please watch it. You won’t regret it.

Thank you, Commander.

Safe journey home.


If I Could Be Anyone, I’d Be…

Today we’re taking a break from the headaches of self-publishing to participate in super blogger Talli Roland’s “web splash” to celebrate the launch of her second novel, Watching Willow Watts

I haven’t read it yet but I loved Talli’s debut, The Hating Game, and this sounds like even more fun:

For Willow Watts, life has settled into a predictably dull routine: days behind the counter at her father’s antique shop and nights watching TV, as the pension-aged residents of Britain’s Ugliest Village bed down for yet another early night. But everything changes when a YouTube video of Willow’s epically embarrassing Marilyn Monroe impersonation gets millions of hits after a viewer spots Marilyn’s ghostly image in a frame. Instantly, Willow’s town is overrun with fans flocking to see the ‘new Marilyn’. Egged on by the villagers – whose shops and businesses are cashing in – Willow embraces her new identify, dying her hair platinum and ramming herself full of cakes to achieve Marilyn’s legendary curves. But when a former flame returns seeking the old Willow, Willow must decide: can she risk her stardom and her village’s newfound fortune on love, or is being Marilyn her ticket to happiness?

What’s this web splash all about then? Well, since Willow assumes the identity of her idol, Marilyn Monroe, Talli invited us all to an online “If I Could Be Anyone, I’d Be…” Party. The idea is that today, you post about who you’d like to be and why, and maybe even dress up as them if you’re so inclined.

So who would I like to be?

Well, I don’t really have an idol or anything like that, and the person I’d most like to be is always going to be me. But if I had to swap my life with anyone, there is one person who immediately comes to mind, and her name is Dr. Kathleen (Kate) Rubins.

If you’ve read my book Mousetrapped, you’ll know that my childhood and teenage years were filled with strange and unusual obsessions, and wild and exotic dreams. My first Big and Unrealistic Dream was to be a NASA astronaut, following repeated viewings of the movie Space Camp and – more recently! – an annual pass to Kennedy Space Center and getting to see a Space Shuttle launch up close. Then after a chance encounter with a book called The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, I decided – at the age of 13 – to become a virologist. But not just any virologist, oh no – I wanted to specialize in the Ebola virus and work in the Biosafety Level 4 laboratories at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) despite being Irish, being squeamish and not studying very hard for my biology exam.

Now while the chances of me becoming a Level 4 virologist at USAMRIID were slim indeed, my chances of becoming a NASA astronaut were even slimmer. But even if I were an American citizen, excellent at science and math and not so cowardly that I refuse to get on rollercoasters (let alone into space ships and hot zones…), the chances of me getting to do those things would still between slim and none, because to get to do them is to not only work your way into an exclusive workplace, but to excel until you have reached the highest ranks of it.

And guess what?

Dr. Kathleen Rubins has done both.

Yes, both. And she’s only thirty-four.

She is only five years older than me, and yet she has worked with the Ebola virus in USAMRIID’s laboratories AND she is a NASA astronaut trainee.

I mean, what are the chances?

So, while I’m pretty happy with how my Achieve My Dreams To Do list is looking, if I could swap my achievements for anyone else’s it would definitely be those of Kathleen Rubins. Read more about Kathleen here.

Who would YOU like to be? Tell Talli on Twitter using the hash-tag #watchingwillowwatts.

Click here to visit Talli’s blog, and see who else is taking part in today’s web splash and who they’d like to be. Click here to find Watching Willow Watts on and here on

What I Thought Of: SEX ON THE MOON by Ben Mezrich

Every once in a while you hear a little snippet of a story and you think to yourself, I wish someone would write a book about that. I bet it’d be really interesting. Luckily for me, my wishes always seem to come true. For instance back in my virology-obsessed days I kept coming across casual throwaway references to HeLa, an immortal cell line cultivated from a woman’s cervical cancer cells back in the fifties that had since been used in everything from the creation of polio vaccine to AIDS research. I wondered who this woman was and how her cells had come to play such a crucial role in the health of humanity as a whole. Imagine my glee when I heard about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which turned out not only to satisfy my curiosity but became one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books.

Now, it’s happened again – with Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich, which is about one of the most audacious (and stupid) heists in American history: a bid to steal and sell lunar rocks from NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, orchestrated by an intern.

“Thad Roberts, a fellow in a prestigious NASA programme had an idea – a romantic, albeit crazy, idea. He wanted to give his girlfriend the moon. Literally. Thad convinced his girlfriend and another female accomplice, both NASA interns, to break into an impenetrable laboratory at NASA’s headquarters – past security checkpoints, and electronically locked door with cipher security codes and camera-lined hallways – and help him steal the most precious objects in the world: Apollo moon rocks from every moon landing in history. Was Thad Roberts – undeniably gifted, picked for one of the most competitive scientific posts imaginable – really what he seemed? And what does one do with an item so valuable that it’s illegal even to own? Based on meticulous research into thousands of pages of court records, FBI transcripts and documents, and scores of interviews with the people involved, Mezrich – with his signature high-velocity swagger – has reconstructed the madcap story of genius, love, and duplicity all centred on a heist that reads like a Hollywood thrill ride.”

I was pre-disposed to loving this book. Reason number one: it’s by Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires which I really enjoyed. Reason number two: I’m a NASA nut. I couldn’t wait to find out about these lucky “co-ops” at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, the undergrads who get to intern at the space agency, and where they got to go and what they got to do while they were there.

And I think that’s the problem, because while I enjoyed Sex on the Moon, I spent almost all of it being utterly infuriated.

Thad Roberts had opportunities that I couldn’t even dream of. He got to work in the Lunar Sample Lab, the special facility that houses the moon rock the Apollo missions brought back to earth (if I was offered the opportunity to go anywhere at all on earth for one hour, that’d by my pick after the original Mission Control), and when news of the heist breaks, Roberts has just climbed out of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where NASA’s astronauts practice working in zero gravity in the largest swimming pool in the United States. He actually has a chance of becoming an astronaut himself.

And what does it do with all this opportunity? He uses it to steal the most precious materials on earth, moon rocks, samples actually collected by hand by Apollo astronauts, and tries to offload them over the internet so he can make a buck.

For a girl who was giddy for a week over a Kennedy Space Centre annual pass, this ridiculousness was hard to take.

Sex on the Moon is very sympathetic, and I couldn’t stomach the whole “he’s just a nice guy who did something impulsive and stupid” defense. Robert’s heist was as meticulously executed as Ethan Hunt’s trip to get the NOC list from Langley in Mission Impossible – this wasn’t a prank, it was a crime.

Mezrich draws Roberts as a man who idly fantasized about how one would break into NASA’s labs without any real intention of ever doing it (in my mind’s eye I saw him pressing “Send” on his e-mail advertising the rocks and then giggling nervously like a schoolgirl who’s just planted a thumb-tack on their teacher’s seat) but then suddenly finds himself pushed over the line into reality and – How did I get here? – at the keypad outside the secure lab. It wasn’t, Mezrich would have us believe, as if he meant to do it.

Yeah… Except that a few days before, Roberts had brushed a special compound on the buttons of that keypad and combined with the backlight he had with him now, he could “read” the access code. And in a motel a few miles away he and his accomplices had set up their own receiving laboratory, a room filled with enough plastic sheeting, tools and latex gloves to make a serial killer proud. And he had buyers ready. So.

And although the rocks were recovered, notebooks in which an eminent NASA scientist had recorded his life’s work never were, but this is swept aside in Sex on the Moon because, hey, Roberts doesn’t remember seeing those during all the moon rock-stealing so that’s alright. The reader is also constantly reminded that NASA had deemed the samples “trash” (they had already been used in scientific research and so couldn’t be used in further research – but they were still priceless lunar rocks) except they weren’t in a trash can, were they? They were in a secure facility that Roberts did not have legal access to, and he was well aware of the laws relating to lunar rocks. (It’s illegal to privately own as much as a particle of them.)

A quick google of what Thad Roberts is up to now confirms what I’d begun to suspect by the end of Sex of the Moon: he’s doing just fine. Unlike his former employers, the owner of the notebooks and the US taxpayers who funded the FBI operation that took him down and the federal prison that housed him during his punishment – and the multi-billion dollar Apollo program in the first place – Roberts appears to have suffered no permanent ill-effects which, of course, only compounds the reader’s annoyance. These days he’s doing TedX talks and working on quantum space theory, so at least he’s putting his brains to better use now than he did in his youth.

But back to the book. Janet Maslin of the New York Times has called Mezrich a baloney artist for the approach he takes to non-fiction, which is to jazz it up so that these tales read more like breathless novels than anything else. Mezrich interprets the facts rather than presents them, but he effectively admits that he does so that doesn’t bother me, and I enjoy his writing style.

What does bother me about Sex on the Moon is that Mezrich – like the version of Roberts he’s presented – doesn’t seem to think any real wrong-doing took place here. I was just waiting for the line, “Well.. it wasn’t like anybody died!”

I’d just about recommend this book, but I’d suspect you’d enjoy it a lot more if you’re not an armchair astronaut.

Click here to find Sex on the Moon on The Book Depository.

Click here to read all my book reviews.

Go For Launch… For The Last Time Ever

The Space Shuttle Atlantis left earth today on not only its final ever mission, but the final mission of the entire Space Shuttle fleet.

Apparently 1 million people descended on Florida’s Space Coast today to see Atlantis off to space. I am thanking my lucky stars – as I do regularly – that I got to achieve my lifelong dream of seeing a Space Shuttle launch in 2007, or only four years before my chances would have run out. I saw Discovery off on STS-120.

It’s very sad, but perhaps not the reasons you might think. I’m not sad to see the Shuttle go, really: it was a wild, over-complicated machine that couldn’t even spell the word budget. But what I am sad about it is:

  • All the people who never got to see a launch up close
  • The fact that there’s nothing to replace it.

(And, for the record, I am SICK TO THE TEETH of reading articles that end with sentences like, “NASA scientists and engineers will now turn their attention to designing a new spaceship.” No they won’t. They’re relying on the Russians to bring their astronauts to the ISS, and they’re pinning their hopes on private enterprise keeping the exploration of space alive. Thousands of people in the space industry that NASA kept going just lost their jobs, and many won’t be able to return to anything resembling the roles they loved so much. If you want to read a researched article about the future of the USA’s manned exploration of space, click here.)

I know I posted this loads of times, but on the off chance that you’ve never read it, here is my account of the Space Shuttle launch I saw. It will be the last time ever, I promise! And although More Mousetrapped will be going out a little late this month (*cough* next week *cough*), it will have a STS-120 theme. And it also involves pizza. Scroll to the end of this post for the sign-up information if you haven’t signed up already.


“Space Shuttle Discovery was slated for launch at 11.38am on October 22nd, 2007, and Andrea and I headed towards the Cape with hopes of seeing it.

Originally we had intended to get up with the dawn and drive out there on launch morning, figuring that if we were on the road by seven we could avoid the fabled traffic jams of The Launch Day Eastward Exodus. But when we shared this plan with our co-workers, they thought we’d been hitting the crazy pills. Kelly advised us to leave no later than six and Mark recalled traffic backed up all the way into Orlando the last time a Shuttle launched.

Neither Andrea nor I were too keen on getting up in the middle of the night, so at the last minute, we decided to drive out there the night before instead, securing what was surely the last remaining hotel room in the whole of Cocoa Beach.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, having arrived, to then head for the dunes with beer and a box of Oreo Caksters and after that, stay up until four in the morning Googling Taylor Kitsch and Altar Boyz videos, but when our wake-up call came only three hours later it suddenly didn’t seem like all that wise a move.

Outside it was shaping up to be a beautiful day: sunshine, clear skies, no wind. We flicked through the local news channels until we came across live feed of VIP guests arriving at the Cape ahead of the launch countdown. Among them was Star Wars creator George Lucas. Apparently somewhere onboard Discovery, the light sabre swung around in Return of the Jedi was carefully stowed away. To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the original trilogy – and to make the heads of Star Wars nerds everywhere spin with delight – the prop was going to visit the International Space Station. Also visiting the ISS was NASA Astronaut Dan Tani who, I would later learn, was married to a Corkonian; back home, the newspapers were filled with stories about the launch.

Most importantly, at T-Minus 3 hours and 30 minutes, we were still go for launch.

After the requisite Starbucks stop – conveniently, our hotel had one in its lobby – we drove the short distance from Cocoa Beach to Titusville, the small town that sits directly across the Indian River from Cape Canaveral, with only a vague notion of what we were going to do once we got there.

Miho (i.e. Original Mirage Owner) had told me once about how she’d watched a launch from the McDonalds on US-1, a highway that ran through Titusville. From there she had had an unobstructed view, almost directly opposite the VAB.

Naturally we weren’t the only ones with that bright idea. A mile out, cars and trucks ahead of us began pulling off the road and nudging their way into every available space to the east of US-1 and the McDonald’s lot was already full.

We were wondering what to do next just as we came upon the riverside parking lot of a restaurant called ‘Paul’s Smokehouse’ where spaces were going for ten bucks a pop. It looked like a pleasant place to wait out the morning and it was probably as good or better than anything else we were likely to find further down, so we handed over ten dollars and took up a spot.

By T-Minus 2 hours 30 minutes, we had secured a prime viewing position at the water’s edge. It was a little bit closer to a couple of fire ant hills than I liked but it was going to be a great place to watch the launch, if it went ahead.

I asked the universe to please, please let me see it happen.

Then all there was to do was sit and wait.

At T-Minus 2 hours, we take a stroll back up the street to McDonalds to get some greasy plastic for breakfast. A couple of kindly senior citizens astute enough to have brought deck-chairs agree to watch our spot for us while we’re gone.

T-Minus 1 hour 40 minutes. Andrea and I exchange looks that go some way to convey how much we want to throttle the two little blonde girls to the left of us. They are unrelenting in their test of their grandmother’s patience, asking an endless barrage of stupid questions in whiney voices. ‘What’s taking so long? Why are we waiting? What’s wrong with your face?’

T-Minus 1 hour 15 minutes. I remember that somewhere in my car is a newspaper so now at least one of us has some reading material with which to pass the time. Hungry creepy-crawlies are making their way into our McDonald’s leftovers.

T-Minus 1 hour. We stifle laughter as one of the aforementioned senior citizens warns her one hundredth idiot about the fire ants. Every few minutes someone goes to sit on the patch of empty grass between us and these ladies, thinking they are the first ones to notice this vacant viewing spot.

T-Minus 45 minutes. ‘Be careful – that’s an ant hill.’

T-Minus 39 minutes. ‘Take care there, there’s an ant hill.’

T-Minus 32 minutes. ‘GET OFF THAT DAMN ANT HILL!’

T-Minus 30 minutes. A couple of hundred people are now gathered in the parking lot of Paul’s Smokehouse. (At $10 a car, Paul must be raking it in.) A text message arrives from my mum – she’s out shopping, nowhere near a TV or radio and therefore really of no use to us at this important juncture. If I’d been thinking clearly I could have had her installed in front of Sky News, sending me text message updates at regular intervals.

T-Minus 25 minutes. Some guy has a radio. He stands in the middle of the crowd holding it aloft so everyone can hear NASA’s tinny chatter from across the river. After a few minutes you can totally tell his arm is killing him, but he can’t put it down now. I notice my shoulders are hot to the touch and turning a shade of Lobster Fusion 104. Anyone got some sunscreen?

T-Minus 15 minutes. One small, solitary cloud appears out of nowhere and settles itself directly above where I think the Shuttle is. I overhear someone saying there is a concern about ice on the launch pad, even though this is Central Florida in October and the temperature’s about eighty degrees.

T-Minus 12 minutes. I fetch my NASA baseball cap from the car and prepare to be disappointed. My stomach commences its Olympic tumbling routine.

T-Minus 10 minutes. My palms start to sweat. I wait for someone, somewhere, to tell me the launch has been scrubbed. Is it really possible that this will actually go ahead, that in a few short moments, a lifelong dream of mine will be realised? I can’t help but doubt it.

Besides the annoying children and the odd NASA voice from the radio, it’s all quiet here at the water’s edge. A few years previously I had seen the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden and for the whole of the first quarter, I had had the strange feeling that something was very wrong. It was only afterwards I realised what it was: having never before seen a game that wasn’t on TV, I was missing the running commentary. It was the same here on the banks of the Indian River. No doubt the launch complex, across from us on the horizon, was a hive of activity. I just hoped that none of it was going to result in the postponement of this launch.

A woman who’d been sitting next to Andrea asked her if it was okay to take our photo as we watched the launch. Andrea was wearing sunglasses and the woman explained she’d always wanted to get a photo of a launch reflected in a spectator’s shades. We hurriedly nodded our agreement and turned back to the countdown.

At T-Minus 3 minutes, I start to lose it. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t just been sunbathing all morning, but awaiting a Space Shuttle launch. I’d been thinking at least last night was fun and thereby consoling myself that it hadn’t been a complete waste of a trip. The two-minute point passed and then unbelievably, the one-minute mark. I looked to Andrea. I looked to the guy with the radio. I looked to my phone. I looked to anyone for news that this countdown had come grinding to a sudden halt.

T-Minus 30 seconds came and went. The clock kept ticking.

I began to panic. I wanted them all to stop, to wait a minute while I savoured this, to just slow down a second so I could take it in.

But it didn’t stop. It carried on.

I’d been expecting another disappointment; I hadn’t prepared for a success.

And so now, I was going to hyperventilate.

I closed my eyes.

When someone began counting down in seconds, I opened them again.

Ten, nine, eight…the crowd at Paul’s Smokehouse were on their feet…seven, six…a few voices joined in, amplifying it… five, four…a lump in my throat…three…here come the waterworks…two

Was I really going to see this?


There was a beat.

Then someone shouted, ‘There it is!’

Across the river from us, a flame the size of a building was burning bright. Alongside it on the flat horizon, huge billows of smoke sprang out on either side and started to swell.

Discovery was go for launch.

The fire began to rise.

Within seconds it was higher than the roof of the VAB and climbing. After disappearing into a patch of cloud, it emerged on the other side and proceeded to burn a hazy arc, up and away from us as the earth turned, white smoke on a blue sky.

The crowd cheered and applauded, encouraging the ship and its astronaut crew to ‘Go, go, go!’ It seemed so impossible. It was frightening. Could this thing really burn its way up into space? We tried to help it along. We willed it towards the stars with our hearts.

A loud rumble came thundering across the Indian River, passed through our chests and then faded away behind us: the launch soundtrack on delay.

My phone beeped with a text message from my mother who had evidently heard the good news: ‘LIFT OFF!’ Either she was as excited about it as I was or she didn’t know how to switch to lower case.

It takes eight minutes for a Space Shuttle to carry its crew into space and for a lot of that time it’s visible in some form from the ground. No one moved until the Shuttle became a tiny white dot and then faded completely from sight.

The Space Shuttle was in space.

Sunlight shone on the bright white tendril of smoke left behind in the sky, a reminder that we hadn’t merely dreamed the entire thing. It had really happened. We had just seen a spaceship depart from the earth.

And somewhere inside the Orbiter, just above the blaze, seven people – and one light sabre – were going up there with it.

When I came back down to earth myself, I realised I’d been crying the entire time, and not just delicate, single-tear-escapes-down-cheek crying, but great blubbering sobs of irrepressible emotion. I was officially a mess.

Andrea thought my overreaction was hilarious but even she had to admit it had been a hugely moving experience. It was just worse for me due to the whole Shuttle launch dream business and the fact that I cried at the drop of a hat. (I didn’t just cry at Oprah, I cried at the sixty second promo for Oprah.) The dreams of thousands of people had carried that Shuttle into space and, by being here, I had seen one of my own dreams realised as well.

When Discovery had disappeared, the woman who’d wanted to take our photo introduced herself as the editor of a local Brevard County newspaper. Now we were paying attention. She wrote down our names and where we hailed from, whilst I hoped against hope that nowhere on her memory card was a photo of an overly-emotional sunburned Irish girl with no make-up, three hours’ sleep, and all her hair tucked up under a NASA baseball cap.

I rang my Mum to relay the details and started crying all over again, which wasn’t a good thing because by then I was at the wheel of the Mirage and on the way home.  Mark called from his shift at the desk to say he’d heard it had launched and congratulated me on finally getting to see it. Only then did it begin to sink in.

I’ve seen a Shuttle launch!

On the way back to Orlando, we rolled down the windows and turned up the radio. Life was good. Yet another dream had been crossed off the list; I needed to get some new ones. Poor Andrea had to be in work by three but as I had the day off, I was free to go home and get back into bed.

However, I was way too jacked up on adrenaline to close my eyes for any length of time. Instead, I replayed my launch video.

A few times.

Okay; over and over for the rest of the day. Happy now?

Two weeks later, I drove back out to Titusville to pick up a copy of the illustrious North Brevard Beacon, the editor of which we’d met at the launch.

When I finally located a few copies in a deserted mall not far from Paul’s Smokehouse, I laughed out loud.

On the front page and under the heading ‘Enlightened Discovery’ (clever!), a NASA-capped crying Irish girl held a hand to her heart, face lifted towards the same unseen sight as everyone else around her.

The caption read, ‘Standing on the banks of the Indian River near Paul’s Smokehouse, Catherine Ryan Howard from Cork, Ireland, is overcome with emotion as she watches Space Shuttle Discovery STS-120 lifting into orbit on 22nd October. She said her first launch was the most amazing thing she had ever seen.’ “


Good luck, Atlantis!

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The Wonderful Professor

The amazing Wonders of the Universe started on BBC2 last week and marked the return to Sunday night TV of the “thinking girl’s crumpet” (not my words, but I agree), Professor Brian Cox. If I had known what a sexy particle physicist he was going to turn out to be (and before you disagree, People have said so too), I might have paid more attention to him when, in his previous life as a keyboard player for the band D:Ream, I saw him on stage at the Point Depot in Dublin circa 1996. At the time, I was twelve and they were Take That’s support act.

Wonders is one of my favorite shows at the moment, not just because it makes science look cool and things like thermodynamics easy to understand*, but because Professor Cox in genuinely in awe of this amazing universe we live in (as we all should be), and it comes across in every word. This awe is awesomely parodied (see what I did there?) in the video below which, if you’ve never seen Wonders, is pretty much what it’s like, only with more science and less swearing:

But this is my favorite Professor Cox video: an outtake from last year’s Wonders of the Solar System in which he reacts to the question of whether or not we “really” went to the moon. In the clip he’s on his way to Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico where ever since Apollo 11, scientists have been studying lunar orbital activity by shooting laser pulses at retroreflectors (mirrors, basically) that NASA astronauts left on the moon. It’s called Lunar Laser Ranging (LLR) and is something the conspiracy theorists love to conveniently forget.

Wonders of the Universe is on BBC2 Sunday night at 9pm, and even if you’ve no interest in science whatsoever, the beautiful images and locations – and the beautiful professor – are reason enough to watch. This week’s episode is called Stardust, and seeks to understand where we all came from, and from what. Maybe one of my all time favorite quotes – “We are star stuff” from Dr. Carl Sagan – will make it in there, because we are, after all, made of the same stuff as the stars are.

Don’t you just love that idea?

Click here for more info on Wonders of the Universe, or to watch online if you live in the UK.

*If we can make requests for Prof Cox to explain complex ideas using things like sandcastles and bonfires and pebbles and stuff, could he please do string theory? It hurts my brain. Thanks.

132 Launches in 132 Seconds

The Space Shuttle Discovery is currently a couple of hundred miles above the earth kissing the International Space Station and hopefully enjoying its last ever trip into orbit. Discovery is of course very special to me personally because it’s the shuttle I saw launch into space. To commemorate Discovery’s last mission CNN put together this amazing video, 132 Shuttle Launches in 132 Seconds, and the lovely Suzanne sent me a link to it. (Thanks, Suzanne!) WordPress won’t let me embed so you’ll have to click through to watch. Enjoy…

The Time It Takes to Fall: A Different Perspective on Challenger

Twenty-five years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated in the skies above Florida’s Space Coast, killing all seven astronauts on board and any illusions anyone may have had about space flight being routine, or safe.

The cause – technically – was a rubber O-ring that failed to seal a joint at lift-off, allowing hot gases from inside the right Solid Rocket Booster (the slim white rockets that sit on either side of the Orbiter at launch) to leak out against the External Tank (the large, rust-colored tank the Shuttle hitches a ride on), eventually causing an unscheduled separation. With the stack heading spacewards at thousands of miles an hour, physics did the rest.

Black smoke escapes from Challenger’s compromised SRB seal at lift off.

The real cause, however, was the decision-making culture at NASA: levels and levels of managers meant that no one person had all the information, the technicians on the front lines felt uncomfortable voicing concerns to their administrative superiors and an ever-decreasing budget not only squeezed safety aside by itself, but made NASA eager to please their Cheque-Signer in Chief, President Ronald Reagan.

It was the culmination of all this that led to Challenger being launched that morning in January 1986, despite freezing temperatures at the pad and in spite of the efforts of engineers at Morton Thiokol, the company who had built the SRBs, who had tried to stop the launch.

The STS-51-L crew of Challenger. Christa McAuliffe is in the back row, second from the left.

The loss of Challenger was made all the more tragic by the fact that Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space, was onboard. I remember getting a jolt on my first visit to Kennedy Space Centre when I realized where I recognized the spectator stands from: footage of McAuliffe’s parents with their faces lifted towards the sky, watching the launch first with joy, then with confusion and, ultimately, horror.

The camera never left their faces. With their back to the launch pad, the camera operator may not have realized what was happening.

There are plenty of books about the Challenger disaster, the events proceeding it and the investigation after it. (The same investigation during which one of the most wonderful characters ever to grace science, Richard Feynman, dramatically demonstrated the O-ring problem by dropping a piece of one in a glass of iced water and then snapping it in two.) But for a different perspective and a wonderful read, I recommend Margaret Lazarus Dean’s novel, The Time It Takes to Fall.

“It is the early 1980s and America is in love with space. Growing up in the shadow of Cape Canaveral, young Dolores Gray has it particularly bad: she dreams of becoming an astronaut. At school, Dolores finds herself caught between her desire for popularity and her secret friendship with the smartest and most unpopular boy in her class, whose father is NASA’s Director of Launch Safety. At home, discord begins to grow between her parents when her father’s job as a NASA technician is threatened. Looking for escape, Dolores loses herself in her scrapbook, where she files away newspaper articles about the astronauts and the shuttles, weather reports on launch scrubs and stories about her idol, Judith Resnik. Then, on the morning of January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing all seven astronauts on board – including Judith Resnik. It is a moment that shakes America to its core, and nowhere is it more deeply felt than in Central Florida. Dolores becomes determined to reconstruct what went wrong, both in her parents’ marriage and at NASA, in the hope that she can save her father’s job and keep her family together. The Time It Takes to Fall is a coming-of-age novel that deftly weaves the story of one family’s drama into the larger picture of a touchstone event in American history. It is at once an intimate look at a young girl’s loss of innocence and a portrait of America’s loss of innocence – the end of an era that romanticized manned space flight and would never be the same again.”

I discovered this book in the stacks of my favorite Barnes and Noble in Orlando in 2007, the same year I finally realized my own life-long dream (all twenty-five years of it, at that stage) of witnessing a Space Shuttle launch – STS-120 that October. As I started reading it, I had that very rare pleasure of feeling as if I was reading a book written just for me. It’s a poignant read and an accomplished debut. The beauty of it is if you’re interested in Challenger and Florida’s Space Coast there’s plenty there for you, but if you’re not, the real life events, facts and figures are woven so delicately into the narrative that they never overshadow the story.

The Astronaut Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Centre.

I’ve always felt a connection with Challenger, even though in January 1986 I wasn’t yet four years old. I think it’s because documentaries and news reports about the disaster were probably my first introduction to the Space Shuttle and from there, the manned exploration of space. (And Space Camp!) Much, much later, I discovered a real connection: Challenger was delivered to Kennedy Space Centre, ready to be prepped for its first mission, on July 5, 1982 – the same day I was born.

Did the crew of Challenger die in vain? NASA changed drastically in its aftermath but yet in 2003, its shuttle mate Columbia disintegrated during re-entry. A hole in its wing, created by a suitcase-sized piece of foam that struck it during launch, had allowed lethally hot gases into one of its wheel wells.

The shuttle is on the doorstep of retirement; there are only a few launches left. Let’s just hope that whatever form the future of manned space exploration takes, it learns all the lessons that these tragedies can teach. And NASA does have an admirable safety record when you consider that out of all the NASA missions – from Mercury which began in 1959 through Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and then since 1981, the Space Shuttle – the Challenger and Columbia tragedies remain the space administration’s only loss of astronaut life during space flight.

The manned exploration of space will always present an inherent risk, but there is never a good reason to be reckless.

Read Dean’s blog, The Time It Takes to Blog. It hasn’t been updated in a while but there’s some really interesting space-related stuff on there. I decided to risk being mistaken for (or recognized as) a gushing fan, and emailed Margaret to see if she had any plans to write another novel. She IS working on another novel (although it’s not space-related) which is great news, because I think Dean is too good of a talent to just give us the one book. She also confirmed that The Time It Takes to Fall wasn’t published on this side of the pond, but look what I found: the paperback available on The Book Depository for just €8.10, and free worldwide delivery! So now you’ve no excuse. Honestly if you have even a passing interest in the Space Shuttle or Florida’s Space Coast, or you just want to read a really good book about coming-of-age and the American family, (or you enjoy Curtis Sittenfeld; I think they’re quite similar), then I highly recommend it.

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