Book Review: 'Challenger' is definitive account of shuttle disaster and missteps that led to tragedy


When the Challenger space shuttle exploded a little over a minute after its launch in 1986, it pierced the dreams of millions about who watched the tragedy unfold live on television. It also eventually exposed the weaknesses of a space program that had been revered by many.

In “Challenger: A True Story of Heroism and Disaster on the Edge of Space,” Adam Higginbotham provides the most definitive account of the explosion that took the lives of the seven-person crew. He also meticulously explores the missteps and negligence that allowed the tragedy to occur.

Bookmarked between two other tragedies that struck NASA — the 1967 Apollo launchpad fire that killed three astronauts and the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster that killed seven — Higginbotham’s book traces the history of the nation’s shuttle program leading up to the Challenger explosion.

Higginbotham manages to temper his account of the excitement the shuttle program generated — recounting how “everyday life seemed to come to a standstill” during the launch of the Columbia shuttle in 1981 — with the warning signs of technical flaws that were overlooked or outright ignored over the years.

In clear and accessible language, Higginbotham explains the mechanics of the shuttle and its problems without sacrificing any of the pace that carries readers forward. The pace is so brisk that readers will be surprised when they realize the vivid account of the Challenger launch doesn’t occur until well after halfway through the book.

Higginbotham provides just as dramatic of a retelling of the aftermath of the shuttle’s crash, from the search for the wreckage and astronaut remains to the investigation and hearings on the disaster.

The book delivers a compelling, comprehensive history of the disaster that exposed, as Higginbotham writes, how “the nation’s smartest minds had unwittingly sent seven men and women to their deaths.”

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