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A Novel

Written by Stephen HarriganAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Stephen Harrigan



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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From the author of the acclaimed and best-selling The Gates of the Alamo, a novel of extraordinary power about what it’s like, and what it means, to journey into space as one of today’s astronauts.

At the novel’s center: Lucy Kincheloe, an astronaut married to an astronaut, the loving mother of two young children, with a fierce ambition to excel in the space program. Her husband, Brian, a rigorous man whose dreams of glory have been blighted by two star-crossed missions. Walt Womack, the steady, unflappable leader of the training team that prepares Lucy for her first shuttle flight.

Lucy has devoted years of intense and focused effort to win her place on a mission, but as her lifelong dream of flying in space comes true, her familiar world appears to be falling apart around her. Her marriage is deteriorating. Her son’s asthma is growing more serious. Her relationship with Walt Womack is becoming dangerously intimate. And when at last she is in space, 240 miles above the earth, and an accident renders the world she left behind appallingly distant—perhaps unreachable—her spirit is tested in gripping and unexpected ways.

In The Gates of the Alamo, Stephen Harrigan’s narrative authority brought a vanished nineteenth-century Texas to vibrant life. In Challenger Park, he does the same with the world of space flight, bringing us up close to the lives—the risks, the friendships, the rituals, the training—of the astronauts and the people who work with them. Harrigan has written an exciting—indeed a thrilling—novel about the contrary pulls of home and adventure, reality and dreams, and the unimaginable experience, the joys and terrors and revelations, of space flight itself.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

She thought she had a chance to make the light at the intersection of NASA Road One and Space Center Boulevard, but the driver in front of her maddeningly decelerated as he answered his cell phone, and now he had come to a full stop while the turn arrow was still yellow. Well aware of her own vulnerability to panicky frustration, Lucy Kincheloe made a point to remind herself there was no real hurry. The light was two minutes long at most, the familiar voice on the phone had been calm, and Lucy herself had already made this trip four times this year. She had trained for enough emergencies to know that beneath almost every sort of raging anxiety there was a calm pocket, a perfect little vacuum in which both thoughts and actions were crisp and clear. She could find that place if she needed to, but for now she just lightened her grip on the steering wheel, then stared in contemplation at the recessed Chrysler logo at its center, as if it were some sort of ancient mandala-like emblem.

The man in front of her swung his head back and forth as he talked on his cell phone. He wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, and on the back of his Range Rover there was a bumper sticker that read, “When a Man Is Tired of Lubbock He Is Tired of Life.” Very funny. Lucy looked away and gazed out across the lake. The morning haze had burned off, and in the noon light the brackish water appeared deceptively lovely, its surface undisturbed except for a single Jet Ski carving a white wake whose exhausted wavelets lapped at the riprap at the side of the road. On the distant Kemah bridge, where the lake merged into Gal- veston Bay, a procession of cars glinted in the sun, and a smallish flock of pink spoonbills meandered in from the opposite shore, heading past the Hilton toward the marshy channels and bayous beyond Bay Area Boulevard.

It all made for a lilting tableau, even in her agitated state, even if she knew that beneath its present blue sheen this particular body of water was a mudhole. It had always galled her that these boosterish Texans could get away with calling it Clear Lake. Reared in the honest precincts of New England, she could not get used to Texas place-names that advertised mountains that were barely more than hummocks or supposedly mighty lakes that would not have qualified as a pond back home. Even the storied Rio Grande, which she and Brian had seen on a disagreeable weekend trip several years ago to Matamoros, was hardly more than a drainage ditch.

The light had still not changed. The driver ahead of her was still yammering on his phone. When the sense of alarm she had been holding so coolly at bay suddenly broke through, she made a lightning assessment of the oncoming traffic and with a breathtaking lack of deliberation jerked her steering wheel to the left and whipped past the Range Rover as she made a left turn against the light. She offered a cringing wave of apology to a flabbergasted driver from the opposite corner whose own impending turn she had not taken into consideration. In her rearview mirror she could see the guy in the Range Rover glaring at her through his polarized sunglasses and switching his cell phone to the opposite hand so he could give her the finger, but she didn’t dwell on his opinion of her for more than a moment.

As she drove down Space Center Boulevard, the tires of her minivan teased the grooves of the newly resurfaced street, producing a wavering banshee tone that matched the cloudy dread that had suddenly entered her mind. The road curved along the back side of the Johnson Space Center, an expanse of empty ground bordered by leafless winter trees, where deer patrolled the fence line and joggers wended in and out of sight, following the exercise trail through a thin screen of forest. “Go Atlantis!” read a banner attached to the chain-link fence, cheering on the space shuttle that was currently on orbit.

The lights were with her the rest of the way, and it took her only seven or eight minutes more to reach the school. At this hour the circular drive in front was empty of buses and carpooling Suburbans, so she was able to lurch to a stop just steps away from the front door. She left the car in one fluid motion, not even pausing to push the locking button on her security key, and entered the school and walked urgently down the hall, past the display of photographs of “Astronaut Moms and Dads” grinning in their orange pressure suits as they held up models of the space shuttle. When she opened the door to the office, the first thing she saw was Davis sitting all by himself in a chair, staring vacantly at a Black History Month poster of Sojourner Truth on the opposite wall.

“Are you feeling tight, sweetie?” Lucy asked her son as she knelt down in front of him and reflexively stroked his cheek.

“A little,” he said.

“Scale of one to ten?”

“It was seven but now it’s five.”

“You’re sure?”

He nodded, though Lucy could still hear a more-than-faint wheeze in his breathing. His skin was pale, he was trembling, and though he was seven years old he seemed to his distraught mother as vulnerable as a newborn—the whorls of his ears almost translucent, his eyes wondrously blank. Still, she knew he was not in any acute danger. There was no justification at all for the way she had allowed herself to surrender to blind fear. What if she had caused a wreck? What if she had broadsided a child in a car seat? At the very least, if the vindictive man in the Range Rover had had the presence of mind to write down her license plate number, she might still hear from the police.

“His peak’s a little better,” Lorelei Tran said as she entered the room with Davis’s inhaler. “I gave him two puffs right before I called you. We’re up to two-ninety now, but he’s still pretty constricted.”

“I don’t think two puffs is going to do it.”

“I wanted to wait till you got here to give him another dose. That’s a lot of Albuterol. Do you want the machine?”

“No, let’s just do the inhaler.”

Lorelei attached the spacer and handed it over to her as Davis compliantly opened his mouth. Lucy administered a single sustained dose. She had gotten to the point where the sound of her son taking in this vaporous bronchial-dilating cocktail troubled her as much as it comforted her. She knew that every relief-bringing puff of Albuterol brought with it an unrelenting jitteriness that was as painful for her to watch as it was for Davis to endure. Sometimes, after an intense bout with the nebulizing machine, his hand shook so much that he could not even write his name. And the other medications for asthma often demanded a more powerful reckoning, cruel side effects like weight gain or stunted growth or humped back that could conceivably one day be visited upon the innocent perfection of her little boy’s body.

“He told Mrs. Ortiz right away he wasn’t feeling well,” Lorelei said as she put the inhaler and spacer back into a drawer. “You’re a smart kid, aren’t you? You don’t fool around when you know something’s not right.”

Davis gave a sideways smile, trying not to show the pleasure he took in this validation of his character from the school nurse, whose wispy sexiness, Lucy suspected, was a factor in the prompt reporting of his symptoms. Lorelei was wearing a cobalt blue polo shirt whose banded sleeves emphasized her slender arms and whose collar rose to meet the feathery edge of her chic haircut. The youngest of seven hyperachieving children of a Vietnamese shrimper in Kemah, she had been born in exile on the South China Sea, her mother going into frightened labor shortly after their refugee boat was boarded by pirates. But not a trace of her family’s epic dislocation had Lucy ever seen in Lorelei’s demeanor, which was as buoyantly American as a strip shopping mall. The school nurse was Lucy’s crucial advocate, never needing to be convinced of the seriousness of Davis’s asthma, confident enough in her own judgment to intervene at the moment he needed it, rather than allowing him to suffer while she tried to find Lucy or fretfully sought out approval from some higher medical authority.

Lucy could hear her son’s breath returning. In a few minutes Lorelei brought out the peak flow meter, and when Davis blew into it he was back nearly to his normal reading of 380. She thought his trembling lip was just the Albuterol delivering its systemic jolt, but then she noticed that tears were pooling in the bottom of his eyes.

“What’s the matter, honey?” she asked, at which point his stoic forbearance gave way. He started to blubber loudly enough for a pair of fourth-grade girls who had just walked by the open door of the office brandishing their hall passes to come back and gawk. Lorelei shooed them away, and Davis, preoccupied with his emotional earthquake, mercifully didn’t see them.

“He’s all right,” Lorelei said. “He’s just a little discombobulated.”

Just a little terrified, Lucy thought as she held her quaking son. She had no firsthand knowledge of what it was like to feel your breath being squeezed off, to live in a world whose very atmosphere was a constant taunt, whose bountiful oxygen was as capriciously out of reach as a rainbow. The closest she could come was a memory of snorkeling, trying to draw in air from a plastic tube clogged with seaweed. He had asked her once, during a bad stretch six months ago, when he was being treated regularly with formidable steroids, if he was going to die. With a maternal ferocity stronger than any she could recall, she had swooped down upon that tremulous thought and crushed it, almost bellowing her reassurance that he was safe and always would be as long as he let her or his father or Mrs. Ortiz or Ms. Tran know when he was having trouble breathing. But the inchoate survival fear was still there. How could it not be? And on top of it was the more graspable everyday bewilderment of a sick child: the humiliation of being suddenly removed from class, the disappointment of missing a trip to the IMAX theater or to the rain-forest exhibit at Moody Gardens, the growing awareness of a defining and isolating vulnerability.

“Am I going back to school?” he asked when he grew calm again. As he spoke, a little bubble formed from the tears and mucus saturating his upper lip.

“I’ll take his peak again after lunch,” Lorelei volunteered. “You can go back to work.”

“I think I’ll keep an eye on him for an hour or so.” She looked at her watch and turned to Davis. “Want to have lunch with your mother?”



The McDonald’s on NASA Road One, just down the street from the Saturn Lane gate of the Johnson Space Center, featured a giant fiberglass astronaut floating out from the roof in the posture of one of the old Gemini spacewalkers, holding an order of fries in his outstretched left hand. Davis and his sister, Bethie, had been entranced since infancy by this figure, by its bulbous, ghostly white space suit, its forever-unseen face behind the glistening visor of its helmet, its suggestion that perhaps within the interior of the McDonald’s there existed some secret gravity-free realm.

The astronaut’s mysterious totemic power had ebbed a bit for Davis, but Lucy noticed that he still looked up at it appraisingly as they walked across the parking lot. Inside she ordered him a Happy Meal with no mustard or ketchup on the hamburger—he had a distaste, amounting almost to a horror, of condiments. For herself, she ordered a dispiriting salad and a Coke—a real Coke just this once, not Diet. While Davis took off his shoes and set them in the plastic shoe racks at the base of the giant coiling hamster maze that commanded the front of the restaurant, Lucy sat down beneath a signed poster of the crew of STS-95—an ancient John Glenn among them—and dialed the number of Dr. Trimble’s office from memory.

“You definitely want to keep an eye on him,” said Margaret, the more up-to-speed of Trimble’s two nurses, when Lucy described the details of Davis’s latest attack. “And you better neb him every four hours just to be on the safe side, and bring him in tomorrow if he’s not feeling better.”

Great. Another round of the pitiless nebulizing machine, another night of waking Davis up every four hours so that the hose attached to the shoebox-sized device could deliver the misty medication that would restore his breath but rattle his fragile body. By the time it was over she’d be jumping out of her skin too, sleepless and ragged with worry and no good for work.

As soon as she pressed the End button on her cell phone it rang again. The caller ID displayed a JSC extension number, but not hers. When she answered, the connection was exquisitely clear, with just the faintest suggestion of a voice lag.

“So I was floating through the Node when I saw the green light on the IP phone and I thought I’d just—”

“Brian?”

It was her husband, calling from space.

“Pretty amazing, huh? Just pick up the phone and call. Did you watch the docking on the feed?”

“It looked smooth.”

“Smoother than any sim they threw at us, that’s for sure. And then we ripped through the transfer like you wouldn’t believe. So where are you if you’re not in your office? I left you a message there, by the way.”

“I’m at McDonald’s.”

“Going on a junk-food binge while I’m gone?”

“I was hoping you’d never find out.”

“I’m the eye in the sky, don’t forget. I see your every move. Kids okay?”

“They’re fine. I took Davis out of school for lunch. He had a little attack this morning.”

“Not serious?”


From the Hardcover edition.
Stephen Harrigan|Author Q&A

About Stephen Harrigan

Stephen Harrigan - Challenger Park

Photo © Kenny Braun

Stephen Harrigan is the author of seven previous books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels Challenger Park and the New York Times best seller The Gates of the Alamo. A longtime writer for Texas Monthly and other magazines, he is also an award-winning screenwriter who has written many movies for television. He lives in Austin, where he is a faculty fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and a founding member of Capital Area Statues, Inc.

Author Q&A

A Conversation Between Stephen Harrigan and Lisa Reed, former NASA Team Lead

Lisa Reed: One aspect of your book that I found interesting given that I had worked at the Johnson Space Center was how well you captured the ordinary, everyday aspects of what it is like to work in a field that is anything but ordinary. Your characters depicted this perfectly– especially the inner struggles that can arise from being a common person working in a profession that’s quite uncommon. How were you able to do that?


Stephen Harrigan: I embarked upon this book with the assumption that people feel more or less the same emotions, and experience more or less the same conflicts, whether they work in an ordinary profession or an exalted one. I knew it would be a challenge to get the details of the space program right, but since I was a magazine writer for much of my career, intensive research is second nature to me. So I spent a lot of time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, talking to people and hanging out and trying to understand how this particular world works. But a novelist can only learn so much through research. At some point, you just have to start feeling your way into the characters. And I knew I wanted the central character of my book to be a woman and a mother who is torn between her lifelong dream of going into space and her earthbound responsibilities toward her children. I remember a crucial moment, early in my research, when I asked you if such a character was even plausible. The fact that you smiled a knowing smile and said, "Oh, yes," was an immense relief to me.

LR: I remember your asking me if your scenario sounded feasible. And I remember thinking it would be great it you could really capture that aspect of it since most books and movies about astronauts don't focus on the human, day-to-day side of that profession. They seem to focus on the technical side of missions and the problems that can and do arise. So what made you want to write a book that did bring the topic "down to earth" so to speak--and one about a female astronaut at that?

SH: About five years ago I drove down to Houston from my home in Austin to visit some family members who live in Clear Lake City, the suburb where the Johnson Space Center is located. I was standing on the sidelines at my niece's soccer game when my sister called my attention to a woman nearby, who was cheering on her own daughter. "Do you see that woman?" my sister asked me. "Last week she was in space." It was just a stunning thought to me. How do you reconcile-- in your mind, in the logistics of your daily life--such two radically different identities? And I think I was struck at a vulnerable personal level by this idea, since it has sometimes seemed important to me, in my career and my life, to seek out and experience marginal doses of high adventure. I never put myself in any real danger, but I was a husband and father of three girls, and the question "Do I have the right to do this?" was always hovering in the back of my mind. So in a minor-key way I think I understand the call to adventure and the emotional cost that it exacts.

LR: During your research into the book, what was your impression of the people you met who worked in the program other than the astronauts-- like the trainers or mission controllers? Anything that surprised you or was contrary to what you thought they would be like?

SH: In the back of my mind was the central-casting image: guys with flat-tops, accountants' glasses, and pocket protectors. But I don't have to tell you how antiquated that stereotype is. Many of the trainers and controllers are women, for one thing. People dress much as they dress in every other business, that perpetual casual-Friday look that has pretty much taken over American workplaces. (Although there seems to be a surprising degree of latitude at the Johnson Space Center: one guy in the tool room at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab had a very impressive collection of tattoos.) And I was genuinely impressed by how agreeable everybody was and how, unlike that other lingering stereotype that clings to engineering types--unimaginative, boringly methodical--how enthusiastic people were at the prospect of helping me make stuff up for a fictional story.

But what really struck me most profoundly about the trainers and controllers and astronauts was how normal and familiar their lives seemed. As I began the book, I started to realize that what excited me even more than writing about space was writing about the earth my characters inhabited. As invigorating as it was to describe a launch, it was just as much fun to write about carpools and fast food restaurants and shopping malls. And as I made my way through the novel I began to see that I had to depict these things with as much energy and specificity as I depicted space flight, because that's really what Challenger Park is about: the way we are pulled in our lives between the normal and the exotic.

LR: I just want to go on the record to say that I have never owned a pocket protector. I’m quite proud of that! One reviewer described your character Walt "as a window into the specifics of the NASA world". Tell us about Walt. And in your view, was he a window into the NASA world for your readers? If so, in what way?

SH: I never consciously thought of Walt as a window into NASA for readers, but I knew I wanted a character who could stand in contrast in some way to the space-bound overachievers of the astronaut corps. I wanted there to be room at the heart of the book for a normal person, the kind of character you don't encounter so much in fiction: someone who's not particularly good-looking, doesn't wear fashionable clothes or drive an interesting car, doesn't have an attitude or an outlaw mentality--but upon whom other people depend for their lives. We live in a culture increasingly besotted with celebrity and a kind of puerile sexiness, and I liked the idea of having a central character who is fundamentally unimpressed by all that. Also, Walt's job--the same team lead job you had–seemed interesting and fun and crucial to me. I remember the first time I came to visit you to in the simulator control room. You were standing at your console wearing a headset, facing the members of your training team who were in turn facing their own consoles, monitoring the astronauts in the simulator. You were so calm and so obviously in charge you reminded me of an orchestra conductor. As a writer, sitting in a room by myself day after day, I'm not in charge of anything and I'm not a part of a team, so it was fun to imagine what it would be like to be directing a shared enterprise of such grave importance. I also felt that it would be a dereliction of my duty as a novelist to focus this book only on the astronauts, the star players of the space program.

LR: I remember that first time I met you, when a NASA public affairs rep brought you into the simulator at the Johnson Space Center. It was probably your first exposure to how the astronauts are trained and to the people charged with training them. You mentioned what you thought about me, but what were your initial impressions that day of the simulator, the process of training the astronauts, the building? Was it what you were expecting?

SH: What struck me more than anything was the sense of calm, the seeming lack of any hurry. We're conditioned to thinking of space flight as perpetual drama, as one moment of crisis management after the next. But on an average day it seemed to me that NASA has the pace of an insurance company or an accounting firm. But the odd thing about the Johnson Space Center is that one moment you're walking through an ordinary office, with cubicles and computers stations, and the next doorway you pass through leads to another world entirely: a gargantuan hangar-like space filled with full-scale mockups of the shuttle and the space station. So, at least to an outsider, there's a certain make-believe quality to the place. It's like being on a movie set.

Okay, my turn to ask a question: what is it like to work with astronauts day after day, for months and even years at a time, knowing that when launch day arrives there's a risk--a pretty significant risk--that they may not be coming back?

LR: I won’t lie. It is a very rewarding and fun job despite the long hours and hard work. Each instructor goes through progressive certifications to be able to teach different spacecraft systems to the astronauts. This ultimately culminates in a certification allowing an instructor to train astronauts in the simulator which means that not only can you train the astronauts that may come through for generic training sessions, but that you can actually be assigned to train a mission from start to finish. Reaching that level can take years of training for the instructor so it’s pretty much a huge personal milestone to get that certification under your belt.
For me, working with the astronauts day after day always brought a new challenge because no two people are alike in how they learn. As students, the astronauts were obviously very intelligent and accomplished and they were going to eventually get to fly in space---so the lack of motivation a teacher might have with some students was not a factor for me. All of us, the astronauts and the instructors, know the risks of spaceflight and there was always the possibility that when they ventured forth they might not come back. No one really talks about it, except sometimes jokingly to cut the tension, but we all know that we are training them to be able to handle any situation that might arise during their mission. The hope is that what we train them to do will help them complete their mission and if a bad situation arises it will be a problem that they were trained to fix. And, in doing what they were trained they will be able to return safely home. I think the hardest part is that the longer I trained astronauts the better I got to know them as people. In some instances they became my friends–I knew their families, socialized with them, attended church with them–so it made it more difficult to balance the feelings of being a stoic participant in a very technical process with my deep affection for these people I'd spent so much of my time with. So as the years of doing that job passed, I felt that my job was more and more significant. This wasn't just an astronaut we were training; it was someone's mom, dad, son, daughter, brother or sister. I felt an additional obligation to train them even better because of that. It made me a better instructor. Unfortunately, over the years, I have lost some of those friends. I can honestly tell you that no matter how well you think you have prepared yourself for that inevitable possibility, when it happens you are never ready to hear the news. It doesn’t hurt any less because you knew it was risky. You grieve the loss with your colleagues, family, and friends- and since space travel captures public attention, you also grieve with the nation and the world. Then you move on to find the problem, fix it and get back into space again---it is the best way to honor their legacy and the legacy of the program.

SH: I got an inkling of how high the emotional stakes must be for you and your colleagues after the Columbia disaster, which occurred when this book was halfway written. I seriously thought about abandoning it at that point, because writing a make-believe story seemed suddenly trivial and vaguely improper when viewed against this shattering real-life event. When I finally gave myself permission to continue, I remember calling you and not hearing back for several months. That was obviously a time of intense personal grief for you, but I wonder if it was a questioning time as well--if you were trying to sort out the values and risks of manned space flight, and whether or not you wanted to remain a part of it.

Lisa: I think the fact that I don't even remember your calling says much about the state of mind I was in at the time. There seem to be many events from that period that are just gone. I remember just feeling adrift for a long time and that the world I knew had been irrevocably changed forever. Early on I had dreams where I would be in a darkened movie theater and the lights would go up and I would run into the one of the Columbia crew members and say their name and express how relieved I was that they had survived. They were usually in the theater with their family members. I suppose my brain was trying to reconcile the loss. Then there were nightmares that followed. I threw myself into my work and just never stopped because if I ever slowed down and got quiet long enough the grief and the thoughts were right there. But you are right. It was a time of intense personal grief. I think for me it was compounded by the fact that I was asked to work on the Columbia accident investigation about 2 weeks after it happened. In order to do that, I parked away the grief because I knew I couldn't do a good job of helping them investigate the accident if I was too emotional. In hindsight, that was probably not a good thing for me because I didn't really grieve the loss until well over a year later. There was a questioning period in there however. Not only were those good people dead, but the program was in jeopardy, and many people’s livelihoods hung in the balance. It was a tumultuous time for us all. I remember thinking just how large a span this grief had–everyone I knew from NASA was grieving. I began to wonder if human spaceflight was worth it, when cast against the devastation following the accident. But I think in the long run, we were all resolved that it must go on. Humans are curious by nature and exploring is at our core. To not take the risk means to not venture forth in search of new discoveries. I think all of the folks involved think it should continue, but some decided that while they could support it, they didn’t necessarily want to be a part of it again because those losses are so hard to take. Time makes it easier, but I know that I will never forget. 2006 was the 20th anniversary of the Challenger accident. Many of the people in the program at the time of that accident were interviewed on the many shows and in articles commemorating that event. Most said that not a day has gone by for them in those 20 years that they didn't think about the crew or the accident. It definitely has an impact of those who experienced it. I don't think it will be any different for me or my colleagues.

SH: After researching and writing this book, I came away as a cautious supporter of manned space flight. But after spending so long looking at the space program through the eyes of my characters, it's hard not to be ambivalent. We are now embarked, or at least seem to be embarked, on a new phase of space exploration, with a specific back-to-the-future goal--a return to the moon and a voyage to Mars--while at the same time there is a lot of energy and new thinking coming out of the private sector. But I can't help feeling a little wistful that for Lucy and the other characters in Challenger Park these new initiatives will have come too late. The people in my book are trapped in what seems to me a poignant historical moment. They are aware of the devastating risks for themselves and their families but unsure of the ultimate point of the enterprise for which those risks are run. They are not trying to beat the Soviets into space, they are not going to the moon, they are not going to Mars, and the shuttles they are flying in are being phased out. They're putting their lives on the line for an antiquated vision, for a purpose that does not seem urgent and about which the public hardly cares anymore. I had to think, as I was writing the book, that astronauts in this confusing period might begin to feel that they had missed their moment, which they were on the wrong side of history. Did any of the astronauts you worked with ever express that sort of frustration to you--or did I just--gulp--make it up?

LR: Wow, that’s a great question! And not an easy one to answer unfortunately because I believe there are two sides to the answer about human spaceflight. One is the political side of how we got the space program we have and one is the personal side of each individual astronaut that led them to want to be an astronaut. To answer you’re question point blank: no, I’ve never had any of the astronauts I worked with ever express any frustration that they had missed their moment in history. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have those feelings–they just didn’t express them to me. I think that is because each of them in a personal way wants to experience actually going into space–the launching from earth, the weightlessness and seeing views and doing things that very few humans ever have an opportunity to experience. Who doesn’t want to experience something so extraordinary? I think even the people here on Earth who say they wouldn’t want to be an astronaut say so because of the risk involved.

As for the ambivalence of purpose –that lingering question of why we have the shuttle at all. Well, that’s the political side. The human spaceflight program was born out of the politics of its era–the Cold War and tensions with the Soviets. While that has changed, the shuttle we have today is also a product of politics. Put shortly, it has become a panacea for all our space needs. It was going to put humans in space, deliver military and commercial payloads, and it was going to be reusable so it would be cost-effective. This was done in order to get political support, which would help secure funding so we could actually continue with the next major project after Apollo. Unfortunately, a lot of the design changes needed to do all those things also made it more expensive to maintain and operate amongst other things, which limited what we could do in the way of exploration. I think when history closes the books on the shuttle program, some will call it a mistake. But I believe it has not all been for naught. The knowledge that we have gained in actually doing space operations such as spacewalking and assembling large structures in space, rendezvous and proximity operations, how humans adapt and live in space, robotics, and other in-flight techniques have all been honed in the last 25 years of flying the shuttle. What our spaceflight operations personnel have learned, both in space and on the ground, during the shuttle program, will undoubtedly help us in future endeavors.

As for the commercial entrepreneurs who are trying to find a way to put the everyday people in space, I am pulling for them. Going into space shouldn’t be just the domain of a few selected by government agencies–it should be open to all humans who are willing and who can pay for a ticket, so to speak. So maybe one day it will come to pass. And I know that many of the astronauts I have spoken to do feel the same about that. Just about every astronaut I ever trained who returned told me something to the effect of “I wish you could have been there” or “I wish we could have taken you with us” because as they said their descriptions and the pictures they brought back just didn’t do it justice.

You know, Steve, your book really captured in some subtle ways many of the things we’ve talked about here. So I have to ask you, other than the shear entertainment of reading a good book, is there anything you hope your readers will take away from your story of Lucy, Walt, Brian and the others in Challenger Park?

SH: I guess the honest answer is that, like a lot of writers, I begin a book for reasons I can never quite articulate. Something--a feeling, a landscape, a memory, an overheard fragment of conversation, the way somebody walks or smiles --will set off a chain reaction in my imagination, and after a while a story will grow out of it. In the case of Challenger Park, I was sort of bewitched by the fine line between the extraordinary and the mundane, and by the different kinds of courage that people are called upon to possess, whether that courage is needed in the service of high-risk exploration or in the less-spectacular challenges of just living a decent life. More than anything, I wanted readers to feel that what I wrote was true--both in terms of the emotional lives of the characters and in the specifics of the world they inhabit. In some parts of the book I could draw on my own intuition and experiences, but there were big sections where I needed to be guided by research and--beyond the research--by imagination. There's no way, for instance, to authoritatively describe what it feels like to blast off in the space shuttle or to look down upon the earth from orbit if you haven't done those things. For that, I had to start with interviews and reading, but then take the presumptuous step of shoehorning my consciousness into those situations and calling upon whatever memories I had of being afraid or being enraptured to make the descriptions as complete and credible as I could. But without your guidance, and that of the other people I talked to at the Johnson Space Center, my imagination would have had no launching pad. So thanks again, Lisa, for all your help along the way and for your insights during this discussion.

LR: Thank you, Steve.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Lucy is clearly torn between her dreams of professional achievement and the demands of motherhood. To what extent does her dilemma represent the reality of working mothers in less glamorous–and dangerous–professions?

2. As the novel opens, Lucy is dealing with her son’s asthma attack while her husband, Brian, is in space. The scene foreshadows a more significant attack that young Davis faces when Lucy is in space and Brian at home. How do the two scenes illustrate the Lucy and Brian’s respective roles as parents?

3. The author paints an intimate and detailed portrait of an astronaut’s routine. What did you find most interesting about Lucy’s rigorous training process and her subsequent mission? What surprised you most?

4. In many ways, Walt and Brian seem to represent the two sides of NASA–Walt working consistently behind the scenes, and Brian craving the thrill and attention of actual space travel. What other characteristics make these two men so different from each other? To whom do you relate more? What do you think draws Lucy to Walt

5. As Lucy prepares for her launch, she makes a video for Davis and Bethie, but not one for Brian. What do you think this decision means? If you had to leave a message for your loved ones on the eve of a journey that could end in your death, who would you choose? What would you say?

6. Lucy describes going into space as “holding her children hostage to her dream,” (p. 393), which becomes a clear focus of the novel. Do you think her decision to go is wrong? How much of our dreams and goals should we sacrifice for the sake of our children?

7. Louis and Walt’s friendship is often strained, yet they clearly rely heavily on one another. What makes their relationship so complicated? Does it have anything to do with the fact that Walt is a man of science and Louis a man of faith?

8. Do you regard Lucy’s affair with Walt as something that broadens her life, or as a selfish act that threatens to destroy the fabric of her family?

9. When Lucy learns that she will be up in space for longer than she anticipated, she has the opportunity to communicate with both Walt and Brian. How do the ways in which these two men respond to the sudden crisis reveal the deeper chords of their characters

10. In a particularly poignant passage, the author describes Lucy’s reaction to her prolonged mission: “Tears did not fall in space. Without gravity, they simply hovered at the rim of Lucy’s eyes, gaining volume as she wept, and when she wiped them away they drifted around her head as perfect spheres.” How do such otherworldly details reinforce the emotional core of the novel?

11. At the end of the novel, Lucy must make an important decision–choosing between Walt and Brian. How does her extended time in space affect her decision? Did you agree with her ultimate choice?


  • Challenger Park by Stephen Harrigan
  • July 31, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $13.95
  • 9780345497642

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