Challenger by Adam Higginbotham review – chronicle of a disaster foretold

<span>The space shuttle Challenger lifting off on 28 January 1986, just before it exploded.</span><span>Photograph: AP</span>
The space shuttle Challenger lifting off on 28 January 1986, just before it exploded.Photograph: AP

In 1986, two catastrophic events occurred on either side of the cold war divide that shocked the world. On 28 January, 73 seconds after takeoff, the US space shuttle Challenger broke apart in mid-air, killing all seven astronauts on board and traumatising millions of viewers watching live on TV. Three months later, on 26 April, a meltdown at Chornobyl sent a radioactive cloud across the USSR and Europe. Two workers died immediately and the estimated death toll over time ranges from hundreds to tens of thousands. It’s widely believed to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In his 2019 book Midnight in Chernobyl, the British writer Adam Higginbotham reconstructed the latter event in forensic detail, building up to the meltdown and tracking its aftermath with the skill of a great thriller writer. It’s one of the most queasily compelling books I’ve ever read, and the scenes in which ill-equipped workers venture into the stricken reactor in the hope of containing the fallout are permanently seared into my memory.

Now Higginbotham is tackling the former event, and despite the awful spectacle of the Challenger disaster and the media frenzy around it at the time – heightened by the presence on board of the charismatic schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe – it would seem the more difficult of the two incidents to turn into a nonfiction page-turner tense enough to make your palms sweat.

He’s extremely good at explaining the intricacies of the most complicated machine in history

For one thing, the Challenger’s demise – though it punctured Nasa’s reputation for competency under pressure, and rattled the US’s conception of itself as a spacefaring nation – did not have the empire-toppling force of Chornobyl, which also hobbled the cause of nuclear energy. For another, though the key event at Chornobyl unfolded very quickly, the danger persisted long after the meltdown and rippled outwards to affect millions of people. The Challenger disaster, by contrast, was over within seconds, and besides the impact on the astronauts and their families, the main damage in the aftermath was to the reputations of those who pushed for the launch despite being aware of fatal flaws in the technology.

Then there’s the sheer volume of technical detail. Midnight in Chernobyl had its share of heavy-duty analysis of how reactors work, and catastrophically fail, but this pales in comparison with the shuttle programme, which has so many moving parts, each complex in its own way, that a writer as thorough as Higginbotham has to work doubly hard to make it all comprehensible.

It helps that he’s extremely good at explaining the intricacies of the world’s first reusable manned spacecraft – the most complicated machine in history, he calls it, with its alarmingly rickety rocket boosters and its infernal jigsaw of heat-insulating tiles, which covered the surface of the shuttle to prevent it from burning up on re-entry. He’s illuminating, too, on the labyrinthine workings of Nasa, which by the 1980s was underfunded, stiflingly bureaucratic and yet wildly overambitious in its mission to make space flight as routine as air travel.

The experience of reading Challenger is a bit like blasting off from Cape Canaveral. The first stretch can be heavy going, requiring the full thrust of Higginbotham’s prose to propel us through the technical and institutional nitty-gritty while also familiarising us with a wide cast of characters – from the astronauts and the top brass at Nasa over three decades to lowly engineers working for contractors around the country. But then, after a couple of hundred pages, the weight of exposition drops away and we cruise with ominous ease towards the events of 28 January 1986.

That we know exactly what’s in store makes the journey no less nerve-racking, largely because Higginbotham is so adept at bringing characters to life, often within the space of a paragraph. One Nasa honcho is described as “secretive, inscrutable, and machiavellian… the Thomas Cromwell of the Johnson Space Center”. As we spend more time with the Challenger crew members, their individual quirks and passions emerge. Ron McNair, one of Nasa’s first Black astronauts and a talented jazz musician, is determined to broadcast himself playing saxophone live from space. Middle-school teacher McAuliffe, who charms everyone with her gee-whiz enthusiasm, fearlessly swings a supersonic jet into a barrel roll when she’s handed the controls during a training flight.

As the astronauts become more vivid on the page, we watch helplessly as repeated attempts to deal with the shuttle’s key weakness – the rubber seals preventing the release of hot gas within the rocket boosters – fail to resolve the problem. It wasn’t just a technical impasse; outside pressures on the shuttle programme meant that higher-ups at Nasa and its contractors were prepared to ignore the warnings in order to stay on schedule. Higginbotham’s account of an emergency meeting on 27 January about the disabling effect of low temperatures on the seals demonstrates this in shocking detail.

As in the case of Chornobyl, blame also resides with the politicians who heaped pressure on the programme even as they hacked away at its budgets. The media, which hounded the astronauts before the launch and their grieving families afterwards, also come in for criticism. But this is primarily a story of corporate and institutional malfeasance, and echoes of the 1986 disaster – the corner-cutting and the suppression of safety concerns – can be felt in the crisis currently besetting the plane manufacturer Boeing.

Higginbotham’s latest may lack the feverish radioactive pulse and vast dramatic scope of Midnight in Chernobyl, but once it gets over the initial hurdles it’s still one hell of a ride.

  • Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space by Adam Higginbotham is published by Viking (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply