Book Excerpt: “Challenger” by Adam Higginbotham

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British journalist Adam Higginbotham, author of ‘Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster’, returns with his extensively researched new book ‘Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space’ (Simon & Schuster), about the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster.

Read an excerpt below.

“Challenger” by Adam Higginbotham

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Flight control room one
Johnson Space Center, Houston
January 28, 1986, 8:30 am

The coffee was terrible as usual: bitter and thin, the color of tea; almost certainly undrinkable. He filled a cup anyway, returned to his console and plugged in his headphones. It promised to be a long morning.

Steve Nesbitt had arrived at his office early to check the latest weather reports from the Cape before taking the short walk, past the duck ponds to Building 30, and up the elevator to Mission Control. But as he had seen on TV, there was no way they were going to launch today: it was freezing in Florida and there were two-foot-high icicles hanging from the gantry. Space Shuttle Mission 51-L appeared to face another delay.

Nesbitt worked at NASA Public Affairs for just over five years and was there for the triumph of the first Space Shuttle launch in 1981 – helping to respond to an outcry from press and media inquiries from around the world. He had since become chief commentator for Mission Control, providing live commentary from Houston on nearly every of the twenty-four shuttle flights. But he was still nervous.

The responsibility for translating the baffling patois of technical jargon and acronyms spoken by NASA engineers and astronauts into a language the public could understand began with the launch countdown commentary blasting from the speakers at Cape Canaveral. Then—once the count reached zero and the spacecraft left the ground—everything that happened happened under Nesbitt’s supervision. There was no script, and he knew his words were going live to anyone watching a launch on television – either on the three national networks, on the newly launched cable channel CNN, or via NASA’s own dedicated satellite feed; instead, he relied on his Ascent Events List, which mapped out a series of milestones the shuttle would pass on its way to orbit, from the slow roll it would perform as it roared away from the launch pad to the moment whereupon the main engines failed, on the edge of space.

The quiet environment of the Flight Control Rooms was designed to focus the minds of each of the flight controllers on their own duties, and only recently had a television set been installed near the Flight Director’s console, showing images of the shuttle during the flight could be displayed. Nesbitt rarely had time to look at it, as his attention was focused on the console in front of him. Here he had access to real-time information about the spacecraft: on his headset he could listen to dozens of audio “loops” that connected groups of NASA engineers and flight controllers on the internal communications network; and on a pair of black-and-white monitors he could see telemetry data being sent back to Earth from the shuttle, with columns of numbers updating every second and describing one of hundreds of technical parameters of its in-flight performance.

With a few hundred feeds to choose from, Nesbitt had his set preferences: ‘Flight Ops Procedures’, which contained data on the shuttle’s engine performance, and the ‘Trajectory’ display, which showed speed, altitude and down distance . Even with all this at his fingertips, Nesbitt found the live commentary unnerving and practiced often. He took his public job seriously and hated it when other commentators took flight with flowery language, like Hollywood PR guys. He wanted to play it fair.

And yet, suffering from the effects of a cold he had caught the day before, even as the final countdown began, Nesbitt would have welcomed another launch delay: his throat was sore and he wasn’t confident he could get through the air to talk. entire climb without his voice straining or cracking. He waited in silence for his signal: for the shuttle engines and the gigantic solid rockets to ignite; for his colleague at the Cape to announce this Challenger had cleared the tower.

It was almost exactly 11:38 in the morning when Nesbitt saw the numbers on his screen begin to move, and a few seconds later he pressed his microphone to speak:

“Good role program confirmed. Challenger going down now.”

At the console position next to him, the flight surgeon—a Navy medic in full uniform—had her eyes focused on the large TV set across the room. It was a perfect launch. Challenger had been on the road for less than half a minute when Nesbitt gave his next update.

“The engines are starting to slow down, now at 94 percent,” he said. “Normally the throttle is at 104 percent for most of the flight. We’ll go back to 65 percent soon.”

The flight surgeon watched the shuttle climb higher into the cloudless sky above the Atlantic Ocean; Nesbitt kept his eyes on the monitors. “Speed ​​2,257 feet per second,” he said. “Altitude 4.3 nautical miles, distance three nautical miles.” The numbers all looked good; after sixty-eight seconds he reported the next key moment on the list ahead of him. “The engines are going to accelerate. Three engines are now running at 104 percent.”

Ten feet away, on the next row of consoles, astronaut Dick Covey confirmed the change with the shuttle commander: “Challengeraccelerate.”

“Roger, accelerate.”

The spacecraft traveled for one minute and ten seconds.

Four seconds later, Nesbitt heard a loud crackling noise in his headphones. The surgeon saw next to him Challenger abruptly obscured by a ball of orange and white flames.

“What was that?” she said.

But Nesbitt stared at his monitors.

‘One minute and fifteen seconds. Speed ​​2,900 feet per second,” he said.

‘Altitude nine nautical miles. Distance seven nautical miles.’ Then Nesbitt looked up and followed the surgeon’s gaze to the TV set. Something terrible had happened. There was no sign of it Challenger, just the expanding fireball where it had once been – and the exhaust trails of the shuttle’s two booster rockets, spinning in opposite directions across the sky. His console didn’t help: the data streams were frozen. Around him, the other flight controllers sat stunned, their faces frozen in fear. Nobody said a word.

Nesbitt knew he had to speak, but he had no information to explain what he was witnessing. His mind was racing. He thought about his responsibility to the public and to the astronauts’ families. He suddenly thought of the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life almost five years earlier: In the confusion that followed, CBS news anchor Dan Rather had announced that White House press secretary James Brady had been assassinated—only to find out that Brady, despite the bullet in the head, remained alive and well. Nesbitt didn’t want to make such a mistake.

A few moments of silence lasted up to half a minute. An awkward silence enveloped the NASA commentary circuit; an eternity of dead air. On the TV screen the cloud drifted in the wind; fragments of debris fluttered toward the ocean. The Flight Director questioned his team for answers to no avail.

It took forty-one seconds for Steve Nesbitt to speak again.

“The flight controllers here are watching the situation very carefully,” he said in a flat and impassive voice. “It’s clearly a major disruption.”

From ‘Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space’ by Adam Higginbotham. Published by Avid Reader Press/Simon and Schuster. Copyright © 2024. All rights reserved.

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