SCOTT SIMON, host:
Tears don't fall in outer space. There's no gravity. They just burst and surround your eyes. You try to blink them away and they just hover. Stephen Harrigan has written a book describing a flight about the U.S. space shuttle as a kind of purgatory with a great view, caught between your loves on earth and the pull of the beckoning universe. The book is called, Challenger Park. Lucy and Brian Kincheloe are astronauts, wife and husband, who are also the parents of a young daughter and a severely asthmatic son. The Kincheloes find the emotional distance between them deepening during space missions. Stephen Harrigan, whose previous novel was the acclaimed, The Gates of the Alamo, joins us now from Station KUVO in Denver. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Harrigan.
Mr. STEVEN HARRIGAN (Author): I'm delighted to be here, thank you.
SIMON: I gather your novelist mind first started turning when you saw an astronaut on the sidelines of a children's soccer game.
Mr. HARRIGAN: That's right. I was down in Clear Lake City, Texas, which is the suburb of Houston, where the Johnson Space Center, where they train the astronauts, is located. And I was at a soccer game for my niece and I was standing with my sister and she pointed out a woman on the sidelines who was cheering on her own daughter and she said, well, do you see that woman? I said, yeah, what about her? And she said, well, last week she was in space. And I couldn't get over the sort of strange idea that you could be in space one moment and a soccer mom the next.
SIMON: The community of children you write about in this book are all growing up looking at a monument to the astronauts who died aboard the Challenger, and I guess there's not a family in Clear Lake that doesn't have to, an astronaut's family that doesn't have to explain that monument and what it means to his or her children.
Mr. HARRIGAN: Well, that's right. It's a very somber-looking monument in a park called Challenger Seven Memorial Park, from which the book gets its name. And it's just a, you know, constant reminder, you know, kids are out there playing and jumping around, and not just the astronauts, but the, you know, Clear Lake and this area and the other space centers are the company towns. When something devastating happens like the Challenger or the Columbia, the ripple effects of that grief and shock are just incredibly wide and profound.
SIMON: I want to get you to talk about Lucy Kincheloe, who's your protagonist. At the heart of your book is that constant tug of war, if you please, between adventure and a sense of mission and responsibility.
Mr. HARRIGAN: Lucy is a working mom and she has all the endemic problems that working mothers in every field do, except that there is this gigantic, life-threatening aspect to her work as well. That was something that was, as you say, it's at the heart of the book, it was do I have the right to do this? And the other side of that question is, do I have the right to deny myself this thing because in denying myself this ambition, what sort of lesson am I teaching my children in that way?
SIMON: I want you to get to read what I thought was a wonderful section. Lucy Kincheloe aboard her mission is describing both the view below and just the most mundane of human activities that I think everybody wonders about when it comes to space travel.
Mr. HARRIGAN: At an altitude of 240 miles, the crew of Endeavor cannot see the planet in its entirety. The Earth was close enough to fill the frame of the orbiter windows. To Lucy it was like a vast, steadily unscrolling map, shockingly vivid, rich with neverending layers of detail. She watched lightening pulse within the cloud cover over the dark Pacific, spidery tendrils of light weaving crazily across hundreds of miles. The lightening seemed to be blindly searching for something. It excited the atmosphere into which it reached so that there was an oceanic chain reaction of pulsing light. Her back was hurting her. Like everyone else she had grown an inch or so taller as the absence of gravity caused her vertebrae to stretch out and the strain on the surprised muscles of her back was constant. Her natural posture now was a kind of floating crouch, which together with enough Advil made the pain bearable. She needed to go to the bathroom and it would be a good idea to do so now before the rest of the crew started to wake up. But the thought of the cumbersome steps required to pee, floating back down to the mid-deck, positioning herself on the toilet seat and engaging the thigh restraints to hold herself in place, attaching the vacuum cleaner-like hose, turning on the motor, made her weary, and she was reluctant to spend this precious free time emptying her bladder when she could be gazing down upon the loveliest sight a human being could see.
SIMON: Boy, how many people were ever faced with that, those options?
Mr. HARRIGAN: There's a dilemma.
SIMON: On that mission, not to give away any plot points, there is an accident and Lucy for a time is left almost more profoundly alone than any other human being has ever been.
Mr. HARRIGAN: That's right. And she is, she finds herself floating in space in a very odd position, in a very weird way. This to me is the most haunting thing when I was writing the book: what it would be like to be a mother and to know something was wrong on Earth with one of your children and to be off the Earth and have no way to get back. I think that's about the cruelest fate a mother could have and that's something that does happen in the book.
SIMON: Not even a way to talk to her son.
Mr. HARRIGAN: And to be able to look down upon the Earth and see the Earth and see the city where he is and not be able to reach him. I think that's like, well, it's a nightmare image to me.
SIMON: We don't want to give any points for what people are supposed to say, so when we talk about astronauts saying goodbye to their children, is it at some fundamental level different for a mother going into space than it is for a father?
Mr. HARRIGAN: I guess it just has to be. I'm a father. I have three children. I feel intensely bonded and responsible to them, but I still think that to be a mother, to actually bear these children, to grow them in your womb, I just think it's just got to be harder.
SIMON: Mr. Sharp, the acknowledgements in the book, and you know for people who turn past the acknowledgements in books, particularly in novels, I will stipulate yours are well worth reading.
Mr. HARRIGAN: Thank you.
SIMON: They're filled with affection and you thank your sister, your late sister, if I may, Julie Sharp. Could you talk about her contribution to the book?
Mr. HARRIGAN: Well, it was immense. I began this book thinking about a woman astronaut and what she has to go through, and I started to think about, well, what if one of her children were sick? Well, all three of Julie's children had asthma. I remember once she got out all the inhalers and medicine in this giant plastic bag for all three of her kids. It took up half the room. This is the stuff she had to keep track of, and while she was doing her work and keeping the house and all that.
I began this book before Julie got sick and I finished it before she died. But if this book is permeated with a sense of a mother having to leave her children, and that was unfortunately what happened with my sister, and so it feels very poignant to me and very real to me when I go back and read it or when I look back at what I've done. I didn't realize how much of it was affected by both a sense of illness and courage and immortality that Julie exemplified.
SIMON: Stephen Harrigan, his new novel is Challenger Park. Mr. Harrigan, thanks so much.
Mr. HARRIGAN: Thank you. I enjoyed talking to you.
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SIMON: You can read the first chapter of Challenger Park on our website, NPR.org. This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.