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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6 Ways to Survive Bad Reviews

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Once upon a time I used to think that the worst thing about Being a Writer was the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love having written and I love making up stories and I love writing funny dialogue that (shamefully) makes me chuckle as I type it up, but I don’t much like the actual writing bit, which can be really hard sometimes and gives you headaches and breeds guilt and gets in the way of mindless TV watching. When it’s going well it’s the most amazing feeling in the world ever, but when it’s going bad you wish that your biggest dream was something a bit more doable, like to fly in a plane or find a toy inside of a Kinder egg.

But anyway. I digress. My new worst thing about Being a Writer is reading bad reviews.

Now I’ve been very lucky not to have had too many bad reviews. I’m hoping this is not because the people who hate the book couldn’t be bothered to review it, or because they are discussing what a wretch I am on Disney fan message boards I can’t access because I’m not a member. And to clarify: a bad review is not a review where the reader didn’t like, wasn’t impressed by or is is ultimately ambivalent about the book you spent a year of your life writing. Those are just normal; we don’t all like the same things. A bad review is a baaaad review – one where the reader is so annoyed by the sheer audacity of you committing words to paper that you can practically hear them spitting blood as you read their opinion.

Yes, I am normally dressed in evening wear and wearing (what was) a full face of make-up when crying over bad reviews. Who isn’t?

What does it feel like to read a bad review of a book you’ve written? Ooooh, it’s really not nice. The closest universal experience I can compare it to is when you’re like 19 and you really, really, really fancy someone and you think, after a protracted flirtation or other signs, that they like you too and then out of the blue and without any warning at all, they show up with their girlfriend. And she’s pretty. And thin. And they’re all over each other right next to you and you have to carry on as if nothing is amiss at all, that you’re fine, when really you just want to run home and cry. It’s that sudden-stomach-dropping feeling, that I’m-about-be-sick-feeling, that blood-rushing-in-my-ears-drowning-out-all-other-sounds feeling – or, sometimes, all three rolled into one.

And people are nice. You are nice. And you tell me to not pay any attention and that you liked my book and that the reviewer doesn’t know what she’s talking about and has she written a book? and look at all my good reviews and all this and I really, really appreciate it, really I do, but in that moment of discovering a bad review, it doesn’t matter. You could have just won the Booker Prize (I imagine) and yet you’d still feel like upchucking your Weetabix.

How can this horrible feeling be avoided?

  1. Write a book that everyone will love and/or avoid reading your reviews. Although I have yet to encounter a writer who has managed to do either; if you know of one, do let me know.
  2. Print out or photocopy a review of your book that you really like from a source you explicitly trust and/or one whom you recall has raved about books you’ve loved and been blasé about the same books you’ve given up on. Stick it somewhere prominent, or in multiple somewheres prominent. Maybe even put an emergency copy in your wallet. Force yourself to read it immediately after the encounter of a bad review.
  3. Look up a book you adored on Amazon and read its reviews. This is always a good one, if only because the reasons people come up with to dislike books never cease to amaze me, not to mention the imaginative insults they heap on it afterwards. (Yesterday best-selling author Jill Mansell tweeted about a reviewer who left one of her books on the train because she “couldn’t bear to have such rubbish in the house”. ??!!! etc. etc.) Remind yourself that you loved this book and yet BigReader874124 thought it was “not good enough to wipe my ass with in a no-toilet paper emergency – I’d rather use my hand.” You can’t please everyone. (And why would you want to?)
  4. Look up the reviewer’s other reviews. On Amazon especially, this can be a very soothing exercise. Maybe they gave Freedom one star because it didn’t have any pictures, or maybe they slated Little Women for false advertising once they discovered it wasn’t actually about vertically-challenged females. (Thanks Rebecca!) Or maybe they thought Never Let Me Go, one of your favorite books of all time ever ever, was not good enough to wipe their asses with in a no-toilet paper emergency.
  5. Write a response. Bad reviews tend to linger with us because we are passionately arguing with them in our heads. I didn’t mean it literally! You took that out of context! I really did do that! You obviously don’t understand what I was getting at! Did you even read the blurb? Did you even read the book?! So put a stop to this by sitting down and typing out a response. You can always delete it or dump it or print it out and set fire to it afterwards. Or, you know, comment on the review on Amazon. (Although if you’re going to do this, wait a few days. Cool off. And be sober.) The fan blowing the shit is multi-directional, you know.
  6. If all else fails, get drunk and ask anyone who’ll listen, ‘Did she write a book? No. I didn’t think so.”

On a more serious note, I watched an interview with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Oprah last week (one Big O Disciple, right here!), and he said something really interesting. Oprah asked him what he thought of his rock star status among certain groups – East Coast college students being the prime suspect – and (I’m paraphrasing of course but) he said that he thinks there are people who like him too much and people who hate him too much, and that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

I think this is the perfect way to look at reviews. I’ve had some reviews so gushing I wonder if I bribed them and then forgot that I had, and some so bad I feel like entering the Witness Protection Program is the only way to recover from them. But I think the truth of how good (or bad!) my book actually lies somewhere in the middle, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

And I must remind myself of the alternative: having written no book – good or bad – at all.

(If you’re going to leave a comment, please don’t mention my book. I’m not fishing for compliments or looking to be cheered up – my Twitter stream did that for me on Saturday night, when I shared The Most Horrendous Review That Anyone Possibly Has Had in the History of the World. But do feel free to share your thoughts on Amazon reviews. Do you read them? Do you rate them? Do you pay any attention to them? How do they affect your book buying, if they do? And if you’re a writer, what’s the best rubbish one you’ve got?)