Author of ‘Challenger’ zeroes in on untold parts of the deadly disaster

The author of a new book about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster is coming to Central Florida for a signing event. Simply titled, “Challenger,” Adam Higginbotham took four years to pore through archive data and interview many people involved in the shuttle program, including those who raised the red flag about the shuttle design problems ultimately ignored, leading to the deaths of the seven astronauts on Jan. 28, 1986, when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center.

Known for a previous New York Times bestseller “Midnight in Chernobyl,” Higginbotham said he decided to tackle Challenger’s explosion as it, like the JFK assassination and 9/11, is one of those pivotal moments that grasped the world’s attention. “An overwhelming reason to be revisiting it is simply because there are so few of those events that in a weird way, unite the nation, in their experience and their memory.”

He was 17 and in school in England when it happened, but only found out about it after returning home where his mother had been watching it on TV. “I can still remember how kind of shattering and hard to believe it was,” he said. “I think that’s another thing about the story for an audience of readers now, is if you weren’t around at the time that Challenger happened, it’s hard to conceive of how impossible to comprehend it seemed because by that time, NASA had established such a reputation of being able to kind of repeatedly achieve the apparently impossible.”

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986. The shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing its seven crew members. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida, after an O-ring seal failed. People all over the country viewed the disaster live because the shuttle was carrying Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. (NASA)

In his research, he found a statistic that said 95% of adult Americans had by the end of Jan. 28 seen footage of the explosion. Many were watching because one of the seven crew on board was a civilian teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. Also killed were astronauts Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnick.

He said he wanted to approach the story to tell some aspects of the disaster and the lives of the seven on board that have not had as much prominence over the years. “I realized that there was an enormous part of the story that I had either misremembered, or I didn’t know about,” he said. “I felt that kind of version of the story that’s been sort of ground into the collective consciousness focused so much on the story of Christa McAuliffe, and the nature of the tragedy from that perspective, that it that it excluded not only huge parts of the story that people knew about the time, but it has also come to overshadow so much of the … success of the program that come before.”

So he wanted to tell the stories of every member of the seven-person crew and how they came to be at the launchpad that day. But then as he investigated, he also uncovered things such as the unpublished 600-page memoir of Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who months before the disaster tried to raise an alarm about the dangers.

“There’s the inside story of a handful of rocket engineers … who tried to stop the launch happening, of what led them to that point, and then what happened to them afterwards,” he said. He also tackled the Rogers Commission Report and interviewed many of the people involved. With nearly 40 years since the disaster, he said it opened up new access that wasn’t available previously.

“There are a lot of people who were eyewitnesses to what happened and participated in events in 1986 who wouldn’t have talked to a writer about that in the years immediately afterwards,” he said. “Now in retirement, they’re much more prepared to be open and candid about what really happened.”

He also felt a drive to tell the story before too much more time had passed. “A lot of these people are still around. Several other people I interviewed were in their 90s,” he said. This was like a last opportunity to do this because pretty soon this information is going to be passing from memory into history.”

If you go
What: Adam Higginbotham book ‘Challenger’ book signing
When: Tuesday, 6-8 p.m.
Where: Writer’s Block Bookstore, 316 N. Park Ave. Winter Park
Cost: Free, but RSVP required; purchase of book required to enter the signing line
Phone: (407) 335-4192