Review: The Burning Blue
by Jeff Foust
|The book’s subtitle claims this is the “untold story” of Challenger, but it’s hard to find anything new and significant here that has not been told elsewhere.|
After a prologue set during the launch itself, Cook follows a basic chronological approach to events, which means following the life of the most famous person on STS-51-L, Christa McAuliffe. While he offers brief profiles of the other six people on Challenger, the narrative thread of much of the book follows the New Hampshire teacher who decided to apply to the Teacher in Space program “because it was something unusual, something fun,” in the words of a friend. She beat the odds, though, and won the competition, starting training for the mission in Houston less than six months before launch.
The book’s subtitle claims this is the “untold story” of Challenger, but it’s hard to find anything new and significant here that has not been told elsewhere. The evidence that at least some of the crewmembers may have survived the initial external tank explosion and breakup of the orbiter, based on activation of emergency oxygen supplies and flipped switches in the cabin, has been reported before. The same is true for the investigation of the disaster. Cook also looks into long-standing allegations that the White House pressured NASA into launching Challenger that day, despite the cold weather, in order to have the shuttle in orbit during the president’s State of the Union address, but finds nothing more than circumstantial evidence to support it.
Cook does fill in some details about McAuliffe’s life in particular that may be new but doesn’t alter the overall story of the mission. (Among the people he interviewed was McAuliffe’s husband, Steven, the first such interview he gave to a reporter since 1986.) So, while The Burning Blue may not be an “untold” story, it can still be nonetheless a new story, particularly for those who weren’t around and don’t appreciate just how gut-wrenching and heartbreaking it was.
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