Excerpt from the book: „Challenger” by Adam Higginbotham

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Simon & Schuster


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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 a new book of his exhaustive research. „Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster at the Edge of Space” (Simon & Schuster), 1986 on the space shuttle disaster.

Read an excerpt below.


„Challenger” by Adam Higginbotham

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A flight control room
Johnson Space Center, Houston
January 28, 1986, 8:30 am

The coffee, as usual, was terrible: bitter and thin, the color of tea; Almost certainly not drinkable. Filled a cup anyway, turned to his console and plugged in the headset. It promised to be a long morning.

Steve Nesbitt arrived at his office early, checking the latest weather updates from the Cape before taking the short walk past the duck ponds to Building 30 and the elevator to Mission Control. But from what he’d already seen on TV, there was no way they could start today: It was freezing in Florida, and two feet of ice hung from the gantry. Space Shuttle Mission 51-L is sure to face another delay.

Nesbitt spent more than five years in NASA public affairs, and was there for the success of the first space shuttle in 1981 — helping answer the clamor of press and media inquiries from around the world. Since then, he has become Mission Control’s chief commentator, and has provided live commentary from Houston on nearly every flight of the twenty-four shuttle flights. But he was nervous.

The task of translating the dizzying patois and acronyms of engineering jargon spoken by NASA engineers and astronauts into a language the public can understand began with a countdown commentary blasted from loudspeakers at Cape Canaveral. Everything that happened after that—when the count reached zero and the spacecraft left the ground—was under Nesbitt’s watch. There was no script, and he knew his words went live to anyone watching the broadcast on television — the three national networks, the recently launched cable channel CNN or NASA’s own dedicated satellite feed; He relied on his Ascent Events List, which mapped out a series of milestones the spacecraft would pass along its orbital path, from a slow roll to the moment its main engines cut off. edge of space.

The quiet environment of the flight control rooms is designed to keep each flight controller’s mind focused on their own tasks, and recently a TV box was installed near the flight director’s console, showing images of the spacecraft in flight. Nesbitt barely had time to see it, as he was focused on the console in front of him. Here, he had access to real-time information about the spacecraft: In his headset, he could listen to dozens of audio „loops” connecting teams of NASA engineers and flight controllers on the internal communications network; And on a pair of black-and-white monitors, telemetry data being sent from the spacecraft to Earth and columns of numbers describing any one of hundreds of technical parameters of its in-flight performance are updated every second.

With a couple hundred feeds to choose from, Nesbitt had his usual options: „Flight Ops Procedures,” which included the shuttle’s engine performance, and the „Trajectory” display, which showed its speed, altitude, and minimum distance. Despite all this at his fingertips, Nesbitt found live commentary nerve-wracking and practiced it frequently. He took his public service duty seriously and hated it when other commentators flew into flowery language like Hollywood PR guys. He wanted to play it straight.

Still, suffering from the effects of a cold he’d picked up the day before, Nesbitt would have welcomed another launch delay even as the final countdown began: his throat was sore, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to speak. His voice is full boom without straining or cracking. He waited silently for his cue: shuttle engines and giant solid rockets to light; His counterpart at the Cape announced it Challenger He had cleaned the tower.

At exactly 11:38 a.m. Nesbitt saw the numbers start moving on his screen, and a few seconds later pressed the mic to speak:

„Good roll plan confirmed. Challenger It’s going downhill now.”

At the console next to him, the flight surgeon — a Navy doctor in full uniform — kept his eyes on the large TV across the room. It was a perfect start. Challenger Nesbitt was less than half a minute into the flight when he gave his next update.

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

A flight surgeon watched a spaceship climb into a cloudless sky over the Atlantic; Nesbit kept his gaze on the monitor. „Velocity is 2,257 feet per second,” he said. „Altitude 4.3 nautical miles, downrange three nautical miles.” The numbers were all good; At sixty-eight seconds, he reported the next major moment on the list ahead of him. „Engines pounding. Three engines now at 104 percent.”

Ten feet away, at the next row of consoles, astronaut Dick Covey confirmed the change with the shuttle commander: „ChallengerGo throttle up.”

„Roger, throttle up.”

The spacecraft flew for one minute and ten seconds.

Four seconds later, Nesbitt heard a loud pop in his headphones. Beside him, the surgeon watched Challenger Suddenly obscured by a ball of orange and white flame.

„What is that?” she said.

But Nesbitt was staring at his monitors.

„One minute fifteen seconds. Velocity 2,900 feet per second,” he said.

„Altitude nine nautical miles. Downrange distance seven nautical miles.” Then Nesbitt looked up, following the surgeon’s gaze to the television set. Something terrible has happened. No symptoms were seen Challenger, an expanding fireball where it used to be — and the exhaust trajectories of the spacecraft’s two booster rockets, spinning in opposite directions across the sky. His console was no help: the data streams froze. Around him, the other air traffic controllers sat stunned. No one said a word.

Nesbitt knew he had to speak, but he had no information to explain what he was testifying about. His mind raced. He felt his responsibility to the public and the families of the astronauts. He suddenly thought of the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life nearly five years ago: In the chaos that followed, CBS news anchor Dan Rather announced that White House press secretary James Brady had been killed — and found Brady despite the bullet. In his head, was very much alive. Nesbitt didn’t want to make a mistake like that.

A few minutes of silence lasted for half a minute. An agonized silence enveloped the NASA commentary ring; Eternity of dead air. On the television screen, the cloud floated in the air; Pieces of debris flew towards the sea. The flight director polled his team in vain for answers.

It was forty-one seconds before Steve Nesbitt spoke again.

„The air traffic controllers here are watching the situation very carefully,” he said, his voice flat and emotionless. „Obviously a major malfunction.”


Excerpted 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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