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

  1. Ben Johncock says:

    Great post, Cath – and you’re right about NASA’s record up to Challanger. That they never lost anyone in space til 1986 is remarkable, especially considering the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years. Space flight is incredibly dangerous.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Ben! Yeah, I think people forget that. When Columbia happened everyone (who didn’t know what they were talking about) were like, ‘Stop the space program! etc. If you ever listen to the astronauts though, they know what they’re doing. They want to continue. And two Shuttle losses out of all the launches is pretty remarkable. Not as remarkable as Apollo of course!

  2. Emma Newman says:

    I was ten when this happened, and I will never, ever forget it. I cried, the teachers cried, I can still see that clip of the footage horribly bright in my mind. Can’t imagine what it must have been like for their families.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I know, just horrendous. One of the things I didn’t really think about about – or realize – until I read Dean’s book is that all the schools in the KSC/Space Coast area were watching the launch, and when the break up happened they could run outside, into their playgrounds, and see the evidence of it all over the sky. They’d been following McAuliffe, presumably, being a teacher, so it must have been very traumatic for them.

  3. Duncan says:

    I hate to be picky about a well-written piece, but let’s not forget the deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee, on January 27 1967, in Apollo 1. This was to have been a systems test precursor to the first manned Apollo flight, but disaster struck during a test and all three died in the Command Module cabin.

    It will be a long time before we can accept space travel as anything like normal, in the way that driving a car is now. Meanwhile, I think it remarkable that the human toll has been so small, given the complexity of the technology, and the enormity of the task.

  4. Rick says:

    I was a senior in high school, and a friend passed me in the breezeway telling me the news. I didn’t believe him – went to the library to check for myself and all the AV monitors were set to the national news replaying the event. Robert McNair was on that flight as well, from SC, and McAuliff you mentioned, so it hit close to home here at school as well.

    I watched with the same dread in 2003.

    But I hope there’s still a drive into space, for exploration and creativity and discover. Thanks for posting, and I’m going to hunt for the book you mentioned as well.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks for commenting Rick.

      2003 was a totally difference experience for me, as I was able to watch the whole horror unfold on the news. But when I think of Columbia I always think: well, at least they got to go into space and complete their mission, and – hopefully – unlike (at least some of) the crew of Challenger – it happened so quickly that they didn’t have time to process what was happening. I hope so anyway.

      Definitely have a look for that book – I think it’s out in paperback now. Really, really good.

  5. Lindsay Edmunds says:

    Thank you for this post. Concise, insightful, and heartfelt — quite a trifecta. I just checked my library’s online catalog: he Time It Takes to Fall is there! It is now on my “to read” list.

  6. Mark says:

    Thanks for this Catherine.

    I had just visited my editor in Titusville a week before the launch. My kids (both under 10 years old at the time) were with me and since they and my wife had never been to KSC before, we took the tour. Challenger was on the launchpad that day.

    A week later I was back in my office, watching a portable TV that was supplied to me for review for my magazine, when I saw the launch and subsequent explosion. It was one of those moments that you always remember where you were when it happened. (My wife is a teacher and I had teased her that she should have tried out to be the teacher in space when it was announced.)

    Can’t believe it’s been a quarter century already.

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