In his dazzling new novel Challenger Park, Stephen Harrigan writes that the “heraldry of old-time space flight has vanished.” Familiarity and indifference have stripped space
flight of much of its wonder and romance. 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, scattering debris over Nacogdoches.
Astronaut Lucy Kincheloe, Harrigan’s protagonist, is aware of her diminished status. “It seemed to her that space travel in her time had lost more in vision than it had gained in viability,” he writes. “[T]he 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.”
A longtime contributor to Texas Monthly, Harrigan teaches at the Michener Center for Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of six previous books, including the best-selling novel The Gates of the Alamo (Knopf, 2000).
In his latest book 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. Challenger Park begins as Kincheloe’s husband, Brian, returns to Earth after making his second serious mistake while in orbit. As his career begins to free-fall, hers ascends, and she’s assigned her first mission. Now she must endure marathon days of training while juggling her increasingly bitter husband, as well her two children, a 7-year-old boy suffering from acute asthma and a 3-year-old daughter. Soon Lucy finds distraction with Walt, a recent widower and the NASA staffer in charge of her training.
The milieu is Clear Lake City, Texas, the modest company town serving the Johnson Space Center outside 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 books such as Mike Mullane’s recent memoir, Riding Rockets, Lucy’s life frequently 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. Often the highlight of his day is sharing banter with the waitress at Luby’s, where he predictably orders the Lu Ann Platter, and watching DVDs with his childhood friend Louis, a Catholic priest in the midst of losing his faith.
The first half of the novel revolves around NASA. Harrigan takes us into the cockpit of the shuttle simulator, with its intimidating array of 2,000 switches, and into the NASA pool (and the murky waters of adultery), where Lucy dons a spacesuit “as bulky and unmaneuverable as a parade float” to practice the movements required for her forthcoming space walk. In space, an unfortunate chain of events will put Lucy’s life at risk and out of reach of her children, who as novelistic coincidence would have it, need her more than ever.
Throughout the book, Harrigan questions the roles of ambition, duty, fealty, and self-sacrifice. 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 his focus, 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, to overcome.
Recently the Observer sat down with Harrigan to talk about his latest novel. The following is an excerpt of that conversation:
Texas Observer: When did you start working on the book?
Stephen Harrigan: About five or six years ago, I was in Clear Lake City, near to Houston where I have family, and I was standing on the sidelines watching my niece’s soccer game. My sister pointed to a woman down the field and said, “Do you see that woman? She just got back from space.” Here was a mother who a week ago had been flying around the Earth and now she was cheering on her kid at a soccer game. It set up a lot of strange thoughts in my head about what it must be like to balance those two poles in your life.
TO: What poles do you mean exactly? You write in the acknowledgments that you interviewed four women astronauts for the book.
SH: If you are a super high-achieving person who also has earthbound responsibilities, there is a tension between your own need for self-fulfillment and your duties, which are not nearly as exciting or rewarding. There exists an inherent conflict. I don’t think it’s the same for both sexes. Women feel it more acutely, but this dilemma still speaks to everybody: I felt I’ve been there in my own way a little bit.
TO: How so? I understand that you once applied to be a Journalist in Space, under an early NASA program.
SH: Yes, I’ve always been a frustrated adventurer. I’ve done a lot of scuba diving in odd places. I’ve been in a few situations that turned out to be a little bit dicey, and I’ve asked myself at those times, “What right do I have to do this? I have a wife and three kids.” So I took that question and pushed it as far you can push it and imagined a mother doing extremely dangerous work, work that literally takes her away from the Earth.
TO: There’s even some question about the very utility of space exploration. How valuable is this work of space exploration, ultimately?
SH: It would be impossible not to have mixed feelings about the space program at this point. A lot of space professionals feel that. It is a big giant question mark. What is this about? Where are we going with it? Are we sure that the American public is behind it? Are we sure that this is advancing the cause of human enterprise? I don’t have an answer for that. I have a sentimental answer, which is “yes.” I think life without manned space exploration would be less rich. But whether you can field-test that assumption, where it would come up true if you were completely objective about it, comparing it to the success of robotic missions or interplanetary probes that are unmanned, I don’t know.
TO: How do you integrate research into writing fiction? Do you do it all at the beginning?
SH: If I’m writing and I need to know something, I’ll call a recess while I’m writing a book. That may be for an hour while I call somebody on the phone to ask, what does a multiplexer/demultiplexer do? Or I might just take some time for a short trip to Clear Lake City or Florida.
TO: Did the Texas setting of the book appeal to you when you set out? There are a lot references to local touchstones, such as Gaido’s in Galveston and Luby’s.
SH: The setting is crucial to me, just like it is in other books that I read. I want to know the specifics of the world I’m reading about as a reader and writer. It’s just uninteresting to me if there is not that local texture. I work real hard to get things right. As much as this book is about space, it’s equally as much about ordinary life. I worked hard to try and make the details of ordinary lives in Clear Lake, Texas, as interesting as the details of being weightless 40 miles above the Earth.
TO: At one point Lucy gets a cell-phone call from her husband. He’s on the space shuttle while she’s at a McDonald’s on Earth with her son. Their circumstances provide a provocative contrast.
SH: The first time I noticed the McDonald’s on NASA Road One near the Johnson Space Center, with this big fiberglass astronaut holding an order of fries in his outstretched hand, that made me think, “I just have to write about this place and about the people who live here.” Real life is potentially as dramatic as space flight. Stories in which people behave as they do in real life, that is to say, somewhat unpredictably, are exciting to me.
TO: At the heart of the book—and this is not giving anything away really—is a disaster in space. Yet even that has emotional consequences for Lucy and, ultimately, for the reader.
SH: Yes, well, something exciting needed to happen or else the book would be boring. So I began to wonder what would be the deepest jeopardy that I could put Lucy into. I began to think what it would be like to be a mother and to know that your child needs you desperately and not be able to reach them; you’re not even on the same planet. To be able to look down and see the Earth revolving below you—to see the country where they, are the state, the city—and not be able to reach your children. To me, that was most haunting image in the book.
TO: The original cover of the book featured Lucy looking out the shuttle at a house floating untethered in space. Did you start with that image in mind?
SH: It’s hard to say whether what you put into a book is deliberate or happenstance. At some point things become deliberate just by virtue of being there … of having written them. It’s not fair to say that I sat down with the entire architecture of the book in mind. Fiction is a process of discovery for me. I’m very, very, very concerned about story and plot, which in the last few decades have become dirty words among literary types. It’s the necessary foundation of the novel, or at least the novels that I like to read. But I’ve learned you just can’t sit down and think of a plot. You have to get to know characters by writing scenes and plot in which they are slowly revealed.
TO: A bit like life itself?
SH: Yes, and once you see what those characters do in real life, you see where that book might be headed. I don’t write wasted scenes. I don’t do these things that you’re supposed to do, like writing character studies or blitzing thorough without paying attention to the niceties of the prose. I’m a first-draft writer, meaning it comes out clean.
TO: How much do you get done a day?
SH: It depends. At the very beginning of the book I’m writing, I might get a paragraph on a good day, but by the end, when I know the characters, I might get 22 or 23 pages a day. You build up so much momentum when you know the story and characters that you’re surfing.
TO: Another of the characters, Louis, is a priest who is losing his faith in God. Much of this book is about loss, but there is also this interesting question about life’s mission.
SH: Some reviews have said this is a book about responsibility. To some extent that is true. It’s been a big issue in my life. I think I’ve been pretty responsible, but it has been a concern of mine that I behave in ways that I find acceptable. I was never interested in the James Dean model of how to live your life. The romantic outlaw concept always felt a little bland to me.
There are all sorts of ways that one can fall off the track. But this is a book about people who want to stay on the track, yet don’t want to deny themselves the richness of ambition and personal fulfillment.
Edward Nawotka covers the South for Publishers Weekly and is a syndicated book critic. He recently moved to Houston, after living in Austin for several years.