Astronaut's challenges aren't just orbital
Review of Challenger Park by Stephen Harrigan from the San Francisco Chronicle
KNOPF; 397 PAGES; $24.95
The space shuttle blasts off on a column of fire equivalent in force to an erupting volcano. The ride into orbit 240 miles above the Earth takes a mere eight minutes. Despite its brevity, the shuttle trip remains perhaps the most extraordinary journey a human can make.
However, familiarity and indifference have stripped space flight of much of its wonder and romance. The "heraldry of old-time space flight" has vanished," writes Stephen Harrigan in his dazzling new novel, "Challenger Park." What we remember most vividly are the disasters, such as the Challenger shuttle exploding 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986 and the Columbia breaking up on re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. Lucy Kincheloe, the astronaut at the heart of Harrigan's book, is aware of her diminished status. She wryly remarks, "It seemed to her that space travel in her time had lost more in vision than it had gained in viability -- the original quest had been forsaken or forgotten, and that she and the other shuttle astronauts were mostly in the service of keeping the practicality of space alive until a bold new direction could be charted." There's no indication of what she would have thought of President Bush's January 2004 announcement about funding a return mission to the moon and a trip to Mars.
Harrigan has been a longtime contributor to Texas Monthly and is the author of six previous books, including the best-selling novel "The Gates of the Alamo." He skillfully weaves a surfeit of detail about the contemporary astronaut's lot in life into a compelling and moving narrative that makes for one of the most extraordinary novels of the year.
Harrigan's novel begins as Kincheloe's husband, Brian, returns to Earth after making his second serious mistake while in orbit. As his career begins to freefall, hers ascends, and she's assigned her first mission. Now she must endure marathon days of training while juggling an increasingly bitter husband and her two children, a 7-year-old boy suffering from acute asthma and a 3-year-old daughter. Soon, she finds herself attracted to Walt, a recent widower and the NASA staffer in charge of her training.
The milieu is Clear Lake, Texas, the modest company town serving NASA's Johnson Space Center, 20 miles south of Houston. It's the kind of characterless, strip-mall-centric exurb endemic to Texas, though one distinguished by a giant fiberglass astronaut atop the local McDonald's. Unlike the macho, testosterone-fueled lives of male shuttle astronauts described in other books, such as Mike Mullane's recent memoir "Riding Rockets," Lucy's life most often resembles that of a soccer mom: driving the minivan to and from the local elementary school (this one with a hallway lined with photos of "Astronaut Moms and Dads"), stopping by Starbucks and scheduling babysitters. Walt's life is even more mundane, the highlight being a bit of banter with the waitress at Luby's Cafeteria, a cheap restaurant chain that caters to retirees and families, and watching DVDs with his childhood friend, a Catholic priest losing his faith.
The first half of "Challenger Park" revolves around NASA. Harrigan takes us into the cockpit of the shuttle simulator, with its intimidating array of 2,000 switches, and into the pool (and into the murky waters of adultery), where Lucy mimics the movements required for her forthcoming space walk, in which she will be encased in a spacesuit "as bulky and unmaneuverable as a parade float." Harrigan describes the "suffocating dread" before liftoff, and, once they're in space, the surprised mosquito that had boarded the shuttle before the hatches were closed "turning frenzied loops in front of [Lucy's] visor, doing its bewildered best to fly in weightlessness" once they reach space.
There, an unfortunate chain of events will put Lucy's life at risk.
Throughout "Challenger Park," Harrigan questions the roles of ambition, duty, fealty and self-sacrifice in our lives. But always at the heart of this novel is the mystery of love and the relationship that exists between husband and wife, parent and child, God and humanity, man and his dreams, and, quite literally, the Earth and the heavens.
Given that, it's not surprising that unlike a great many writers who depict adults as perpetual adolescents, forever striving for a more prestigious job or a beautiful lover, Harrigan gives his characters real problems that demand maturity, as well as superhuman self-control and sober professionalism. That kind of respect for his characters translates into respect for the reader.
Harrigan may not yet be well known outside of his home state, but this book -- as scintillating and brilliant as the ocean of stars in a clear night sky -- easily makes him candidate for the best writer living in Texas (Larry McMurtry now lives most of the year in New Mexico) and certainly puts him in the top tier of American novelists.