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Review: The Burning Blue

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The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster
by Kevin Cook
Henry Holt and Co., 2021
hardcover, 288 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-250-75555-1

Depending on your age, the loss of the shuttle Challenger more than 35 years ago can either seem like it happened yesterday or feel like it’s ancient history. If you’re old enough to remember the tragedy, the memories run deep and can come bubbling back to the surface with just the slightest mention. For anyone younger than about 40, though, who lack the first-hand memories of the event, the events lose their visceral, emotional punch.

It’s those latter, younger audiences that might best appreciate The Burning Blue, the new book on the Challenger by Kevin Cook. While the book isn’t particularly revelatory about the disaster, contrary to its subtitle, it does examine what happened before and afterwards, helping explain why it had such an impact on people.

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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