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CHALLENGER by Adam Higginbotham Kirkus Star


A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space

by Adam Higginbotham

Pub Date: May 14th, 2024
ISBN: 9781982176617
Publisher: Avid Reader Press

A searching history of a disaster-laden effort to build and launch a space shuttle.

Higginbotham, author of Midnight in Chernobyl, begins in 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger experienced what a controller dispassionately called “obviously a major malfunction,” exploding with no survivors. He then looks backward at a fraught moment in earlier NASA history, when a fire in the inaugural Apollo capsule killed the three astronauts aboard, “the most lethal accident in the short history of the US space program.” Mission commander Gus Grissom had noted shoddy construction beforehand, and the rush to get the spacecraft into space before the Russians could claim the Moon led to deadly shortcuts. As the author capably chronicles, the space shuttle program began with major obstacles—not just the technical hurdles of building a reusable shuttle capable of withstanding the rigors of launch and reentry, but also “a further new parameter, one of which NASA had no existing experience: a limited budget.” That tight budget, imposed by Nixon-era austerity measures reducing a $14 billion request to just $5.5 billion, “the first of many fatal compromises,” led to shortcuts in construction that NASA leaders overlooked even as contractors voiced worries about them. Famous scenes from the Challenger postmortem are seared in memory, including when physicist Richard Feynman plunged a rubber O-ring into ice water to show its instability in cold temperatures. Unlike Apollo, the space shuttle program was effectively terminated, if slowly, after a second shuttle, Columbia, exploded, with NASA engineers and administrators having ignored “signals lost in the noise of a complacent can-do culture of repeatedly achieving the apparently impossible.” Higginbotham’s book is without Tom Wolfe’s flash, but it’s a worthy bookend to The Right Stuff—albeit marred by the wrong stuff—all the same.

A deeply researched, fluently written study in miscommunication, hubris, and technological overreach.