July 24, 2024

In 1986, two catastrophic events occurred on either side of the cold war divide that shocked the world. On January 28, 73 seconds after liftoff, the US space shuttle Challenger disintegrated in midair, killing all seven astronauts on board and traumatizing millions of viewers watching live on TV. Three months later, on April 26, a meltdown at Chornobyl sent a radioactive cloud over the USSR and Europe. Two workers were killed immediately and the estimated death toll over time varies from hundreds to tens of thousands. It is widely believed to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In his 2019 book Midnight in Chernobyl, the British author Adam Higginbotham reconstructed the latter event in forensic detail, building up to the collapse and tracing its aftermath with the skill of a great thriller writer. It is one of the most moving books I have ever read, and the scenes of poorly equipped workers venturing into the weakened reactor in the hope of containing the fallout are permanently burned into my memory.

Now Higginbotham tackles the former event, and despite the horrific spectacle of the Challenger disaster and the media frenzy surrounding it at the time – intensified by the presence on board of the charismatic teacher Christa McAuliffe – it turns out to be the more difficult of the two incidents. be. to turn into a nonfiction page-turner tense enough to make your palms sweat.

For one thing, the Challenger’s demise – though it dented Nasa’s reputation for prowess under pressure, and rattled the US’s conception of itself as a spacefaring nation – lacked the empire-shattering power of Chornobyl, which also scuttled the cause of nuclear energy. For another, although the key event at Chornobyl unfolded very quickly, the danger continued long after the collapse and rippled outward to affect millions of people. The Challenger disaster, by contrast, was over in seconds, and apart from the impact on the astronauts and their families, the greatest damage in the aftermath was to the reputations of those who pushed for the launch despite being aware of fatal errors in the technology.

Then there is the sheer amount of technical detail. Midnight in Chernobyl has had its share of heavy-duty analysis of how reactors work, and fail catastrophically, but that pales in comparison to the shuttle program, which has so many moving parts, each complex in its own way, that a writer as thorough as Higginbotham has to work double hard to make it all understandable.

It helps that he is extremely good at explaining the intricacies of the world’s first reusable manned spacecraft – the most complicated machine in history, he calls it, with its alarmingly wonky rocket boosters and its hellish puzzle of heat-insulating tiles, which the surface of the shuttle to prevent it from burning out on reentry. He is also illuminating about the labyrinthine workings of Nasa, which by the 1980s was underfunded, stiflingly bureaucratic and yet wildly overambitious in its mission to make spaceflight as routine as air travel.

The experience of reading Challenger is a bit like shooting away from Cape Canaveral. The first stretch can be heavy-handed, requiring the full thrust of Higginbotham’s prose to drive us through the technical and institutional nitty-gritty, while also familiarizing us with a wide range of characters – from the astronauts to the top brass at Nasa over three decades to humble engineers working for contractors across the country. But then, after a few hundred pages, the weight of exposition drops away and we sail with eerie ease to the events of January 28, 1986.

The members of the Challenger team: from left, Ellison S Onizuka, Mike Smith; Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair. Photo: NASA/AP

That we know exactly what lies ahead does not make the journey any less nerve-wracking, largely because Higginbotham is so adept at bringing characters to life, often within the space of a paragraph. One Nasa honcho has been described as “mysterious, inscrutable and Machiavellian … the Thomas Cromwell of the Johnson Space Centre”. As we spend more time with the Challenger crew members, their individual quirks and passions emerge. Ron McNair, one of Nasa’s first Black astronauts and a talented jazz musician, is determined to broadcast himself live from space while playing the saxophone. Middle school teacher McAuliffe, who charms everyone with her spirited enthusiasm, fearlessly swings a supersonic jet into a taxi when she hands over the controls during a practice flight.

As the astronauts become more vivid on the page, we watch helplessly as repeated attempts to deal with the shuttle’s main weakness – the rubber seals that prevent the release of hot gas inside the rocket boosters – fail to solve the problem. It wasn’t just a technical deadlock; outside pressure on the shuttle program meant that senior officials at NASA and its contractors were willing to ignore the warnings to stay on schedule. Higginbotham’s account of an emergency meeting on January 27 about the debilitating effect of low temperatures on the seals demonstrates this in shocking detail.

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As in the case of Chornobyl, the blame also lies with the politicians who put pressure on the program, even if they slashed its budgets. The media, which hounded the astronauts before the launch and their grieving families afterwards, also comes under criticism. But it is primarily a story of corporate and institutional malfeasance, and echoes of the 1986 disaster – the corner-cutting and suppression of security concerns – can be felt in the crisis currently afflicting the aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

Higginbotham’s latest may not have the feverish radioactive pulse and great dramatic scope of Midnight in Chernobylbut once it gets over the initial hurdles, it’s still one hell of a ride.

  • Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster at the Edge of Space by Adam Higginbotham is published by Viking (£25). Around the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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