Book Review: Challenger Park
Reviewed by: Marianne Dyson
Title: Challenger Park
Author: Stephen Harrigan
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Date: April 2006
Retail Price: $24.95
Any woman would find it difficult to deal with the constant worry of a child’s illness, an ambitious husband who feels threatened at work, and a job of her own that requires lots of travel and overtime. That difficulty is only compounded if the woman and her husband are astronauts who face the real dangers of losing each other, their son, and their marriage while being pressured always to do more and do it better by a training team that must prepare them to survive in an unforgiving environment.
In Challenger Park, author Stephen Harrigan has written a timeless story of a man and woman struggling to find love, take care of their families and friends, and fulfill their lifelong dreams.
The main character is Lucy Kincheloe who is married to ambitious fellow astronaut Brian. Brian flew on a problematic mission to the old Russian space station, Mir (deorbited in 2001). His performance on that mission has landed him on a “blacklist” of astronauts who will probably never fly again. The author carefully blurs the actual events on Mir so that Brian becomes a sort of conglomerate of the handful of real American astronauts whose troubles were described in detail in Bryan Burrough’s book, Dragonfly. The other main character is Walt Womack, the dedicated lead training instructor for Lucy’s crew. The frustrated Lucy and the lonely widower Walt (whose wife died of cancer) find themselves in a forbidden relationship that plays itself out against the backdrop of Lucy’s son’s illness, Brian’s anger, Walt’s wavering faith, and the very demanding job of preparing for spaceflight including an EVA.
The story takes its title from a park local to the Clear Lake area and has nothing to do with the Challenger accident. Speaking as someone who worked for NASA, lives in Clear Lake, and knows the Johnson Space Center area well, I was pleasantly surprised at the accurate descriptions of local restaurants, buildings, and schools in this book. Author Stephen Harrigan obviously did his homework! A female astronaut I had dinner with recently said she thought the book did a good job of portraying the challenges of preparing for a first flight as well.
Without giving away any details, I’ll say that I found the accident in space to be quite plausible, and think that even the most nitpicky of NSS armchair engineers will be satisfied at how it is handled. Those of you who know what a stickler this former flight controller is for technical details will realize what high praise this is!
The technical aspects of the story were excellent, and the characters felt like real people I expect to run into at the grocery or a PTA meeting here in Houston. There was not a lot of action, but plenty of real-life drama that kept me reading. The side story of Walt’s best friend and priest who struggles with his ministry, and Lucy’s dealing with babysitters provide a rich context for the main characters. This book is for adults, and those who might want to give it to a young person should be advised that there are some sex scenes included. They are handled tastefully with most of the details left to the imagination.
Challenger Park will entertain you with a realistic plot and believable characters while showing you what it would be like to combine the demands of everyday life and family with the drama and risk of being a participant in our current human spaceflight program. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.
© 2006 Marianne Dyson
NSS Featured Review for October 2006