However, in some respects it seems as though Harrigan intended to write not about life’s short bursts of drama, but the long, plodding parts in between. Prior to her mission, Lucy’s life is a predictable pattern of eat, work, and sleep: She’s raising a family in a Houston suburb, driving a minivan, and, as astronauts apparently do, working administrative jobs while she waits to be assigned to a mission. Conflicts arise as the older of her two children, Davis, suffers a debilitating asthma attack, and her husband Brian, also an astronaut, returns from his second mission bitter and angry, having performed less than admirably. His obsessive disillusionment with NASA and inability to communicate with his family or coworkers, threatens not only his and Lucy’s careers but also their marriage. In the midst of this, Lucy meets widower Walt Womack, the team leader who will train her for her mission and eventually become her lover. There’s enough tension there to keep the book exciting — especially if you add in the spirit of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died tragically in the 1986 Challenger shuttle explosion, who haunts Kincheloe throughout the book, challenging her will to be both a mother and an astronaut.
By Stephen Harrigan
$24.95, 416 pages
Yet, there are places where Harrigan’s brilliant attention to detail works, and Lucy’s training and mission are some of the most interesting parts of the book. From the earthbound astronaut’s odd jobs to division of labor on a mission to how the astronauts eat, bathe, and rest to the oddities of weightlessness (at one point, Lucy’s tears drift around her head like sad planets) to the earth’s appearance from 250 miles away, Harrigan manages to explain in technical detail how space travel works, without losing sight of his character’s particular vantage on it.
It feels somehow wrong to fault what is, in the end, a really well-written book for being too real, and I wouldn’t necessarily call Challenger Park boring — after all, one feels compelled to finish it — but in a book billed as “thrilling,” there has to be some happy medium between utterly believable humdrum angst and action-packed thriller.