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Kevin Cook's New Book Re-Examines The Life Of Christa McAuliffe

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger was one of those where-were-you-when moments from history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE NESBITT: We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: In what appears to be a major catastrophe in America's space program, Challenger, only seconds after leaving the launchpad, according to NASA, has exploded in midair. No word yet on if there are any survivors.

SIMON: That was from CNN on January 28, 1986. All seven members of a truly diverse and interesting crew of human beings died, including the first and only member of NASA's Teacher in Space Project.

Kevin Cook's new book considers the glittering lives cut short in what turned out to be a fatal error to launch on a freezing-cold Florida morning. His book, "The Burning Blue" - Kevin Cook joins us now from Northampton, Mass. Thanks so much for being with us.

KEVIN COOK: Hello, Scott. It's good to be with you today.

SIMON: Let me begin with this one. Should that flight have been launched at all on that morning?

COOK: It should not have, and there were warnings. There was a great deal of schedule pressure coming from NASA. There were 14 more shuttle launches scheduled for 1986. There was a great deal of pressure to get the bird in the air, as they said, on a school day preferably because teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe was going to teach lessons from orbit.

This was in part an attempt on NASA's part to restore, rekindle interest in the shuttle program that had become a little bit routine, especially since Sally Ride made history in 1983. When the engineers were telling them, do not launch this flight, the engineers were putting their careers at risk by saying so. And one of their bosses said, it's time to take your engineer's hat off and put a managerial hat on.

SIMON: An assortment of truly appealing individuals on board the Challenger, and I regret we can't focus on all of them - the first Jewish American in space, the second Black astronaut, the first Asian American and Buddhist in space. Let me ask you about Ron McNair. He was a physicist and a gifted saxophone player and, far as I know, the only astronaut who could smash a...

COOK: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Concrete block.

COOK: I think he was. This was a good thing to do if - at parties, even if you are an astronaut. Ronald McNair was not only NASA's premier flying laser physicist, but he was, as you mentioned, a saxophone player who gigged with touring bands when they came through Houston. And also, there's Dr. McNair with his bare hands smashing two concrete blocks. And he could explain the physics of it.

SIMON: Let me ask you about J.R., Judith Resnik, first Jewish astronaut.

COOK: She was a remarkable person. She was the smartest person in the room, practically any room. She was a concert-level pianist who chose not to go to Juilliard because electrical engineering was more practical. She was a remarkable person who also recognized the difficulty that her crewmate Christa McAuliffe was having with the fairly elementary math that she needed during her training and became Christa McAuliffe's unofficial tutor. They became friends. They couldn't have been more different.

SIMON: Some of the hardest sections of the book to read explores what the last two minutes and 45 seconds might have been like because apparently the crew survived the explosion.

COOK: That is really a key part of the book to me. It was something that I did not know when I set out on this process. I think like most Americans, I imagined that they died instantly in the conflagration that we saw in the sky. The fire that we saw over Cape Canaveral on the 28th of January in '86 was the giant external fuel tank exploding. And the crew compartment that held the seven astronauts remained intact. And the crew did not die instantly, and what killed them was striking the water at 207 miles per hour.

The evidence is clear that there were seven personal emergency air packs that the astronauts had. Three of them, at least, were activated after the fire in the sky that we saw that left that awful pitchfork in the sky. There were switches thrown on the flight deck afterward in attempt to save the crew and the mission. But one thing that I was able to find about those two minutes and 45 seconds is that as the crew compartment fell, it was trailing umbilical wires that had connected the crew compartment to other parts of the ship. And poignantly and bizarrely enough, those wires acted like the tail of a kite. And rather than spin, which would have put the crew members out of consciousness immediately, it flew more like a kite, more directly down, as aviators say, trimmed in flight on the way down to the impact with the Atlantic.

SIMON: There has been a real growth of women in science. Is that kind of a recognition of the contributions of Christa McAuliffe and, for that matter, Judith Resnik?

COOK: If they had anything to do with it - and I think they did - I think that's one thing that would make them very proud. There are now lunar craters named after both of them, after all seven of the Challenger astronauts. There are asteroids named after them. There are many, many schools named after them. I think, in particular, Christa McAuliffe would be gratified. This was her great cause, to promote the cause of underpaid, overworked schoolteachers. And the idea that many, many, many schoolteachers took her as a role model, I think that's another thing to take from this national trauma that in some ways had good results.

SIMON: Kevin Cook - his book, "The Burning Blue." Thank you so much for being with us.

COOK: Thank you, Scott. I enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "AETHER SPACESHIP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.