What was Stephen Harrigan thinking? Before the Challenger shuttle
disaster, even before 9/11, it was relatively easy to market
space-related books, movies, documentaries, or just about any other
decently appropriate product you'd care to mention.
That was then, this is now. When authoritative voices on public
television and network talk shows lament that space travel and
exploration have become a political backwater, mortgaged to wars in
the Middle East, the exigencies of natural and human disasters, or
the fickle temperament of global stock markets, I also hear
undertones of genuine grief and loss. A whole generation has come
into being that doesn't share the awe of three heady decades when
launches, landings and footsteps on the moon were glorious
The dream all but ended in 1986 with the pre-orbital explosion that
instantly killed the Challenger crew and has haunted every
subsequent NASA project. Just last week, I posted two nifty little
SST shuttle models on eBay --- for the third time. It was a
resounding no-go; they will probably be mine forever.
Why this long preamble to Stephen Harrigan's just-launched
CHALLENGER PARK? It's because I'd have given him an A-plus just for
tackling the unjustly neglected space program in the first place,
let alone for writing this amazingly cogent and heartfelt story
that has kept me entranced through nearly 400 pages.
Now don't get me (or Harrigan) wrong; this isn't about uncritically
cheerleading for NASA, or for elevating astronauts into
unrealistically heroic brand-name action figures. Nor is it about
ignoring the overwhelming needs and urgencies that bear down on us
every day all over our stressed planet. Only sentences into this
book, Harrigan proved beyond a doubt that he's formulated a new
style of "the right stuff," combining numerous literary, scientific
and emotional ingredients into a recipe that goes beyond mere
entertainment --- beyond even mere good entertainment.
A large part of what makes CHALLENGER PARK far more timely than any
marketing survey might reveal is its honest encounter with the
enormity of it all; the very idea of confronting a universe so vast
and dangerous that it forces our myriad human bits and pieces into
achingly clear perspective. By focusing on how the multiple
professional and personal demands of the space program --- even in
its current just-staying-alive state --- affect the complex family
dynamics of a wife-husband astronaut team, Harrigan has injected a
healthy dose of grounded (forgive the pun!) reflection and
substance into a theme too long dominated by larger-than-life
I was also pleasantly surprised by the unaffected normality of
relating to a woman's experience in a field no longer dominated by
men in any measure, except that of cold statistics. Harrigan's
artistic ease and assurance never overtly drew attention to the
fact that a man writing from within the texture of female senses
and responses could have saddled himself with a built-in liability.
But it just never happened: in her humanity, skill, uncertainty and
hope, astronaut Lucy Kincheloe is as credible a character as you'd
ever wish for, coping with situations that both test and breach the
boundaries of human experience.
Even if you've never given the space program more than a passing
thought, don't dismiss CHALLENGER PARK as just another heroic
American-dream tale. It is far more than the sum of its parts ---
and couldn't have come at a better time.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch (firstname.lastname@example.org) on December 26, 2010