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.

April 2006By Comments

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 and lumbar pad and sealed her helmet as they teased her about whether she had dared to eat breakfast and told her she should be glad she was an astronaut and not a cosmonaut, because the most sacred tradition before a Russian spaceflight was not anything as simple as writing your name in the frost of the O2 line. You had to climb down out of the bus that drove you to the launchpad and, in full view of the assembled space workers, unzip your suit and urinate on the right rear tire.

The techs were dressed in sterile white bunny suits. The room was glaringly white, and in this unnatural enclosed space, with her Snoopy hat and helmet muting her hearing, Lucy felt less as if she were about to embark on the adventure of her dreams than to undergo a dangerous surgery. She was grateful for the small talk and the jokes, for the way the techs distracted her with laughter as they solemnly triple-checked all the connections and seals upon which her life depended.

When they were through, it was time for her to crawl through the crew hatch, through the mid-deck, and then onto the flight deck. She had practiced this many times in training, and she was used to the heavy, ungainly pressure suit, but even so, it was still jarring to her to move through these horizontally designed compartments that were pointed at a ninety-degree angle toward the sky.

She was greeted on the flight deck by Larry Contreras, an astronaut from Lucy’s class who was still waiting for his first mission, though his lead guitar work and raspy vocals had made him the dubious star of MaxQ, an astronaut band. Like the techs, Larry was dressed in a bunny suit. He was serving as a Cape Crusader on this flight, helping to get the crew into place and settled.

“Looking gorgeous,” he said to Lucy as she stood on the aft bulkhead, which served as the floor of the upended flight deck. She smiled at him through her open visor, breathing heavily after crawling through the hatch in her cumbersome suit. The air in the cockpit was warm and stuffy, and the circulating fans did little but push it around.

Surly and Tom Terassky were already strapped in, staring up at the sky through the cockpit windows, facing the two thousand switches of the control panel. With Larry’s help, Lucy heaved herself up into the Mission Specialist 1 seat behind Tom. They were both sweating. The seat was cramped and hard, a thin cushion over an unforgiving steel frame. Larry handed her her communication cable and oxygen hose. He adjusted the fit of her helmet and guided her through her comm checks.

“How are you feeling?” he asked her. “Raring to go?”

“Raring to go,” Lucy repeated as she noticed the condensation that had briefly formed on the inside of her visor. She felt her heart beating with a steady insistence that she thought at first was caused by the exertion of getting into her seat but which she finally had to recognize was just outright fear. The air was still thick, but now that all the hoses were attached, chilled water began circulating through the ventilation garment she wore beneath her pressure suit, and as her body cooled, the sense of being trapped began to ease. She felt calmer after Buddy was strapped into the seat beside her and calmer still when Patti and Chuck Nethercott had been settled into place in the mid-deck. She could not see Patti and Chuck but could hear their voices on the loop, and the knowledge that the crew was together gave her a familial sense of comfort.

“Well, I guess it’s time for my boot heels to be wanderin’,” Larry said as he reappeared on the flight deck, the sweat still glistening on his forehead. He had obviously rehearsed this lighthearted exit line, but it didn’t quite work out, since Lucy heard his voice catch and saw him blink hard to clamp down on a tear that was forming in his eye. She couldn’t blame him for being emotional at the enormous thing that was about to happen to these six people in his charge. He shook each of their hands and was bold enough to give Lucy an awkward kiss on the top of her helmet before he whispered, “Godspeed,” and left them alone on the flight deck.

“I think he likes you,” Buddy said.

“Shut up,” Lucy answered him.

Not long after, Lucy heard the crew hatch close and Ground confirm it with Surly. They were alone now, the six of them, alone in the massive vessel that in a few hours’ time was scheduled to erupt with the force of a volcano and drive them through the atmosphere. Soon there would be no one within three miles of them, except for the rescue crew stationed in a protective bunker a mile away. Lucy stared upward, looking between Surly’s and Tom’s shoulders at the sky, now vibrantly blue with the full morning light, a few inconsequential clouds straying in from the ocean side of the Cape. The weather was good; the updates from Ground were positive.

“You know what, space cadets?” Surly said to the crew over the loop, in one of the lulls when the voice of the orbiter test conductor was not passing along information or running through checklists. “I think this is really going to happen. I think we’re going to get off the pad on our first try.”

Lucy knew there were still a thousand things that could scrap the launch: a minor radar anomaly, a sensor warning, an unexpected weather complication. But the conviction was growing in her that it was going to take place, that nothing would stop it, that the launch was not just on schedule but ordained. Part of her wanted to surrender to that conviction, to take comfort in the fact that fate was overriding every choice she could make and every apprehension she could feel. But there was also a part that would not deliver herself so passively, and that was the part that kept envisioning her children in their room at the launch control center, the dutiful way they would be drawing their pictures on the dry-erase board before they’d be taken outside to stare at the billowing flames and feel the shaking ground as the engines of their mother’s spaceship ignited.

She listened as Surly and Tom, from the commander’s and pilot’s seats in front of her,admired the pristine switches of the Endeavour cockpit—so different from the worn, constantly used switches in the simulator. She listened to Buddy anxiously humming parts of a song she couldn’t quite place and to Patti’s and Chuck’s good-natured complaints from the mid-deck about the spectacular view they would have during launch of the storage lockers.

At this point in the countdown, there was not much for the crew to do except lie on their backs in their rigid seats and try to distract themselves with talk. When Lucy became aware of her own silence, she thought of Christa McAuliffe. She had once listened to the tape of the prelaunch cockpit banter of the Challenger crew: Judy Resnik complaining about how her butt was numb; Greg Jarvis offering to give her a massage; Dick Scobee, the commander, breaking in with an authoritative observation every now and then about the wintry Florida weather outside. It was the same sort of high-spirited and nervous commentary that Lucy was listening to today, but what had struck her at the time she heard the tape, and what came back unwelcomed to her memory now, was Christa’s near-total silence. She had not joined in the conversation; she had seemingly drawn no consolation from the jittery fellowship of her crewmates but had sunk into a contemplative isolation at her station in the windowless mid-deck. What had she been thinking about during this sustained silence? Had she been wondering about the children who would soon be motherless and the cheerful reassurances by which she had betrayed them? Only once on the tape had Lucy heard Christa speak. She had said, as the winter wind whistled outside, sweeping the frost off the fuel tank so that those looking out the cockpit windows thought it was snowing, “It’ll be cold out there today.”

Next to Lucy, Buddy shifted in his hard seat. “I’ve got to pee again,” he said. She told him she didn’t need to know that, but as soon as he had announced it, she’d felt once again the pressure of her own bladder. It was all right. She would rather concentrate on physical discomfort than on the dread that could steal over her if she allowed herself to dwell on the wrong thoughts. Her back was starting to ache, so she squeezed a bit of air into the inflatable lumbar pad. The slight shift in position that resulted helped her back, for a moment at least, but sharpened the urge to urinate. She felt a bit hollow as well and was starting to regret that she had skipped breakfast. Her mouth was dry. She told herself it was because she had been avoiding liquids, but she suspected it was really from fear.

Another hour passed, the countdown moving smoothly toward the automatic hold that would come at nine minutes before launch. Lucy listened as Surly talked to the woman monitoring the ground launch sequencer, watched as the abort light brightened and dimmed on the console in front of him as Ground conducted an abort check. Lucy reviewed the emergency escape procedures printed on a card Velcroed to her sleeve, though of course she had long known them by heart. She also knew that if there was a sudden fuel leak or fire while they were still on the pad, it was a benign fantasy to think she could release herself from all the straps binding her to her seat and drag herself and the 85 pounds of space suit she was wearing to the escape basket outside the gantry before being incinerated in a vicious explosion.

Buddy started humming again, just a few bars of some improbable tune—was it “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”?—and then he drifted back into silence as the call-outs from Ground grew more frequent and the communications discipline began to tighten.

It was happening. At T minus nine minutes, there was a built-in hold for ten minutes. Lucy checked to make sure all her straps were tight and glanced again at the emergency egress card. She no longer registered the pressure in her bladder. The pains in her back were still there, and now there were cramps in her upended legs, but none of it mattered any longer.

“Endeavour,” Lucy heard the GLS voice say over the loop, “countdown clock will resume on my mark. Five … four … three … two … one … mark … T minus nine minutes and counting.”

“Roger,” Surly answered, with a delighted bounce to his voice. “We see the clock running.”

Buddy reached over and gave Lucy a congratulatory punch on the shoulder.

“On our way, Lucy Goosey,” he said. Through the open visor of his helmet, she could see the disbelieving smile on his face and just a hint of the terror that lurked beneath it. She meant to reply in the same awestruck tone, but when she opened her mouth, she found that she was incapable of forming any words at all. She took a long sip of water. It helped a little, enough to allow her to utter a reply, but almost immediately the tissues of her mouth felt numb and dry again. When she tried to swallow, her throat constricted in a parched spasm. She could feel the fear leaching all the moisture out of her body.

In a few moments the cockpit would begin vibrating as the three main engines at the base of the orbiter began to gimbal into their launch positions. At T minus two minutes they closed their visors, and the cool oxygen that circulated around Lucy’s face momentarily distracted her from the suffocating dread that threatened to claim her. But after that things began moving too fast for any emotion, much less any purposeful thought, to linger more than an instant. She saw the data flowing across the computer screens; she heard Surly’s voice acknowledging the closing of the oxygen vents and the retraction of the oxygen vent hood; she felt the whole ship lurch and sway as the computers made one last check of the steering controls.

She thought she had prepared for everything, but the pitiless swiftness of the countdown clock caught her by surprise. Someone seemed to be tossing each of those irrecoverable seconds, perhaps the remaining seconds of her life, indifferently away. Then, all at once, time was up, the main engines were igniting, and something more powerful and savage than she could have ever believed existed took control of her life. It was not just the liquid hydrogen burning in the external tank, not just the powdered aluminum in the solid rocket boosters reacting to an instantaneous dart of flame, that propelled the shuttle off the pad. It was something with a determinative force and will, some being on its own errand, no more concerned with her existence than it was with the scattering shorebirds or the tortoise she had seen that was surely now quaking in its burrow.

The roar as they cleared the tower blanketed every sound except for the steady, tinny voices she heard through her headset, bulletins from the ground about the trim of the engines and the upcoming roll maneuver. The vibrations that assaulted them were so strong, so much stronger than she could have imagined, that for an instant or two she thought the orbiter might be coming apart. She looked at the computer screens, but the effort of trying to focus on the jittery data they displayed gave her an acute sense of vertigo, and she closed her eyes for a moment to dispel it.

It took a conscious effort, with the monstrous g-forces that were bearing down on them, for Lucy to even open her eyes again. This time she glanced at the pocket mirror she had strapped to her knee so that she could see through the orbiter’s overhead windows. Endeavour was just beginning the backward roll that would help throw it into a high eastward arc, and through the little window, she caught a blink’s-length impression of whitecaps slouching onto the beach where she and Brian had walked the night before, and then almost before the image had formed on her retina, it was gone, replaced by a scatter of white as the shuttle blasted through a cloud deck.

The ship rattled even more as it bored past the sound barrier and traveled along in its rough envelope of supersonic air. The g’s mashed her back into her steel seat, holding her in place with the steady, malevolent intent of a strangler. Straining to breathe against this phantom assailant, she thought about her son and his asthmatic struggles, understanding for the first time how he must have seen the disease not as an affliction but as an active enemy.

This empathetic thought had barely formed before Endeavour lurched violently and she heard a tremendous cannonlike boom as tendrils of yellow flame streaked across the cockpit windows. It was SRB sep, the empty solid rocket boosters blowing themselves away from the orbiter as it continued to climb with the remaining fuel in the liquid tank. Surly had warned them not to mistake this violent event for the shuttle itself blowing up, but the jolt was ragged and cataclysmic enough for Buddy to reach out and grab Lucy’s arm and not loosen his grip until the jagged ride turned suddenly silken and the oddest silence Lucy had ever known visited the cockpit. The view through the windshield, through the overhead windows projected in her pocket mirror, was of a deepening spectrum field, a shading to seductive black. They were high now, almost into space, in a realm where the air was too thin for sound to carry. The three engines at the base of the orbiter were still roaring, but Lucy and the crew couldn’t hear them anymore. The sound of Endeavour forcing its way through the thick atmosphere had stilled as well, though they continued to climb, more insistently than ever. The gravitational pressure holding her in her seat continued to be intense, but in the silence and stillness it had changed from a malevolent force to a protective one, a firm and gentle hand, almost maternal, holding her down until she could be released without harm.

“Houston,” she heard Surly calling to Mission Control, his voice intimate in her headset. “Roger. Press to MECO.”

MECO: main engine cutoff. This was the milestone Lucy had been praying to reach, the moment when they could detach themselves from the external tank and its lethal explosive potential. Challenger had blown apart long before it reached MECO, with the children and families of the crew watching, but Endeavour was now far out of sight. If something went wrong now, at least Davis and Bethie would not have to witness it.

“MECO on time,” Surly called out to Mission Control. The hand that had been pressing down on Lucy’s chest gently withdrew. She noticed that her arms were now hanging suspended above her lap, and the cords that had tethered the checklists in the cockpit were floating tendrils. A mosquito that had boarded the shuttle before the hatches were closed was now more than two hundred miles above the earth. Lucy watched it turning frenzied loops in front of her visor, doing its bewildered best to fly in weightlessness.

One last violent spasm rocked the orbiter, as the empty fuel tank was blown away, and then there was the thrust of the orbital maneuvering system engines driving the craft the rest of the way into orbit. The OMS boost provided a final reminder of gravity, shoving Lucy back into her seat again and sending the mosquito tumbling downward. When the burn was over, it was quiet again, except for the laughter and congratulations of the crew. It was only then, when the incredible g-forces had vanished, that Lucy realized she could lift her head and look out the orbiter’s overhead windows. They were flying upside down, but in the weightlessness of space, in the unframed infinitude to which they now belonged, up and down had ceased to be relevant. The windows were filled with a scrolling panorama of cloud and sea and glimpses of rumpled landforms and sharply defined continental edges. All of this coasted toward a horizon constantly renewing itself with prismatic light, and beyond the horizon a biblical darkness, deep and total. This was the earth she had left only eight minutes ago, but which was now a lifetime away.

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