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Onyx reviews: Challenger Park by Stephen Harrigan

Using the backdrop of the space shuttle program, Stephen Harrigan examines a damaged family. Lucy and Brian Kincheloe are both astronauts, but only Brian has been in space, the veteran of two missions, both problematic. During his lengthy stay aboard Mir, he made inflammatory statements about the mission on an open microphone. Later, aboard the shuttle, he tried to fix a problem without consulting the mission commander, endangering the lives of the entire crew.

Brian's experience with NASA has made him jaded and paranoid. He sees conspiracies everywhere, and much of his communication with his wife is dominated by this poisonous mindset. Those around Lucy fear that her husband's public failures may reflect badly upon her, jeopardizing her professional future. Lucy feels herself drawing away from the man to whom she's been married for a dozen years. Harrigan shows her struggle as she wonders if she can love Brian again-and if indeed she ever did love him. Brian seems painfully unaware that his wife is carefully and meticulously disengaging from him, preparing to launch herself into a new life.

The book takes place before the Columbia disaster grounded the shuttle fleet, but the specter of Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger catastrophe looms large. Lucy's young children are frightened by the possibility that something similar might happen to her. To complicate matters, her son Davis is asthmatic. Lucy is often summoned from work to deal with one of his steadily worsening attacks. Though she wants nothing more than a shuttle assignment, she knows how difficult being away from home for a week or more will be.

Contrary to expectations, Lucy is assigned to the next flight, STS-108, a low-profile mission where the astronauts will restock and perform some routine maintenance on the space station and carry out a few experiments for earth-bound scientists. Much of the book is taken up with detailed descriptions of the routine of a shuttle astronaut preparing for flight-with side-ventures into what those who aren't scheduled for a mission do to keep in shape and earning their pay. Harrigan, who lives in Austin, has clearly done his homework. The description of the Clear Lake region of Houston, where Johnson Space Center is situated, is accurate and familiar down to the smallest details: the décor of a McDonald's or the location of a bookstore.

Lucy finds herself drifting into a romantic relationship with Walt Womack, the flight-training director assigned to her mission. Walt, a widower, has trained nearly a generation of astronauts without any aspirations to flight of his own. He doesn't see how experiencing weightlessness can be more satisfying than the heavy lifting required achieving it. Lucy and Walt orbit around each other, pulled together by the gravity of attraction and kept at bay by their consciences. They consummate the relationship just before Lucy is confined to isolation in the week prior to liftoff. They're given ample time to consider the implications of their actions when Lucy is stranded aboard the space station indefinitely after a mishap during her mission.

It might be too glib to describe Challenger Park as The Right Stuff for the space shuttle generation. After the nation recovered from the Challenger disaster, the shuttle program gradually ceased to be a novelty again except for those directly involved. Space flight became mundane, routine. Launches stopped being televised. Some-like Brian-question the necessity of spending so much energy and money for a mission that only takes people 240 miles above the earth; a far cry from the accomplishments of the Apollo flights.

The book isn't about people with the right stuff, though. It explores a small group of real, flawed people who, in spite of extraplanetary adventures, spend most of their time trying to figure out what's best for themselves and for those around them. Sometimes the two aren't mutually compatible and concessions are made for the benefit of others. As Lucy's husband learned, the adventure of being in space is short-lived and real life continues long after the landing.

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