Liftoff!

In this exclusive excerpt from Stephen Harrigan’s new novel, Challenger Park, an astronaut prepares to blast into space for the first time. But her mind keeps drifting toward more worldly concerns.
Illustration by Guy Billout

She sat in her seat in the van, almost immobile under the weight of her orange pressure suit, staring out the window toward the Atlantic beach. There was a faint suggestion of dawn, but it was no competition for the xenon floodlights that unnaturally illuminated the stack at Pad 39-A. The rotating service structure, the huge hinged tower that covered the shuttle when it was upright on the pad, had been rolled back, revealing the vessel that would transport Lucy Kincheloe to space. From this distance, the orbiter itself was poignantly small, a stubby-winged parasite attached to an orange tank of liquid fuel as tall as an office building, with the two smaller solid rocket boosters on either side.

Buddy Santos, seated behind her in the van, rapped on the back of her head with his knuckles. When she turned around, he said, in a whisper, “Are you believing it yet?”

She shook her head. Buddy’s were the only words any of the crew had spoken so far on this short drive. Everyone was silent and reflective. They had been ever since breakfast, which only Surly Bonds had eaten with any appetite. Lucy and most of the rest of the crew had drunk only a token glass of orange juice, worried that solid food would only enhance their susceptibility to space sickness. No one had had coffee, since they would be in the orbiter waiting for launch for a minimum of two and a half hours,and the last thing any of them wanted was to have to urinate into their maximum-absorbency garment.

Lucy’s bladder was already giving her nervous signals, but she had expected these twinges and was hopeful she could ignore them until liftoff, at which time they would surely be forgotten. She focused on the view outside the van’s window. The beaches and wetlands that made up the Kennedy Space Center were a wildlife sanctuary, and as they drew closer to the pad, she caught a glimpse of an alligator floating in a water-filled ditch along the side of the road, the ridges on its back glistening in the creeping daylight. A few yards ahead she saw geyserlike clouds of dirt erupting from a hole in the ground. From a wildlife tour of the Cape she had taken during her astronaut training days, she knew this was probably the work of an unseen gopher tortoise, industriously enlarging its burrow.

In another hour or so, her husband, Brian, would be waking the children up. Then they and Lucy’s mother and sister would be taken to the top floor of the launch control center, where Davis and Bethie and the children of the other crew members would, according to tradition, draw pictures of the mission on a dry-erase board that would later be hung in the hallway.

The security guard at the last checkpoint saluted as the van drove up the concrete slope that led to the launchpad. Lucy climbed out with the others. It was a humid morning, and sweat was already pooling at the neoprene collar around her neck. They all stood there for a moment as they stared up at the stack, as spray from the condensed water cascading down the outside of the external tank cooled their faces. Built though it was by men and women, the space shuttle seemed to Lucy too colossal to be grasped through a human prism. Its beauty was almost beyond the range of her perceptions as well: The rust-colored orange foam of the external fuel tank was suddenly sumptuous and complex, like the unexpectedly rich hues hidden in the drab scales of oceangoing fish. The white solid rocket boosters flanked the liquid tank with a majestic symmetry and presence that seemed imposed by nature rather than decreed by human design. Indeed, the whole assemblage, frosted with chemical ice, glistening and seething and groaning on the pad, reminded Lucy of some remote mountain peak, nearly impossible to climb, shrouded in its own unruly weather.

They scaled the peak in the elevator built into the scaffolding of the gantry. They rose in silence to the 195-foot level, where they disembarked and walked along the catwalk toward the hatch where they would enter Endeavour. On the way, they lingered, looking out over the railing at the day breaking over the Cape. The Banana River causeway was a solid procession of headlights: people coming to watch the launch. In the flaring light, Lucy saw flocks of shorebirds wheeling above the beaches and marshland below them. Despite the noise of the elevator as it descended and the baleful moans of the wind threading itself through the grid work, despite the almost organic sounds emanating from the explosive liquid core of the external tank, Lucy could hear those birds: the belligerent barks of gulls, mixed in with rapid-fire trills from the terns circling the stack, and below it all, the mournful questioning tone of some unseen early-morning wanderer.

Last chance to pause and reflect,” one of the techs who greeted them said as he pointed to the dismal little toilet off the catwalk. Lucy had hoped she could avoid this last-minute pit stop, but the needling sensation she had been feeling on the van ride had suddenly blossomed into a full-scale need to pee. It was the same for all of them. The techs waited patiently while the crew took turns. Lucy and Patti Halapeska went into the cramped space together, helping each other unzip their suits and zip them back up again. When they had all emptied their anxious bladders, Surly instructed them to write their initials in the frost covering the oxygen supply line leading into the orbiter. It was one of those odd little traditions that had begun for no real reason but would be dangerous now to ignore.

After that they waited on the catwalk until they were called in turn into the White Room, which abutted the orbiter hatch. The techs in the White Room were soothingly friendly and efficient. They helped Lucy into her parachute harness

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