Kevin Cook does the narrative nonfiction genre proud in The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster. His story of America’s Teacher in Space and the whole Challenger story kept me absorbed on every page. Once I started, putting the book down was nearly impossible. Cook draws from a myriad of sources and lays out countless facts, but never loses track of the emotions in this tragic disaster.
Cook starts out with McAuliffe, her life, and how she became the Teacher in Space. He discusses her family life and how much her students loved her. As a student herself, McAuliffe loved the stories of women who pioneered to the West in America’s history. It’s no wonder she saw herself as a pioneer, going into space to show students that they could do even the most unexpected.
But there’s much more to this book and the Challenger Disaster. Cook introduces all the crew members, including their quirks and accomplishments. We also learn a little about their family backgrounds. More than anything, Cook delves into the science of space shuttles and the politics of NASA. These two aspects play the biggest part in the disaster of January 28, 1986.
Reading about them, I wondered how the space agency ever launched another flight. But Cook also explains how NASA and the US government unflinchingly examined what went wrong. And then how they moved to make changes.
The Burning Blue is everything I wish for in narrative nonfiction. I want the story to grip me, and read a bit like fiction. I appreciate relatable characters, despite the differences between our lives. Great narrative nonfiction also teaches me new things, which enlarges my perspective on life.
Cook manages all this in a medium-length book. His acknowledgments and notes prove the volume of research he did. Yet, this feels like intimate storytelling as well. It’s the perfect balance between facts and emotions.
For me, the Challenger disaster was an earlier version of 9/11. It’s a moment in time that I can describe in detail. I know who I was with, how I happened to watch live TV at just that moment, and what I said to my companion as we stood with our mouths agape and eyes full of tears. I feel the same about the next space shuttle flight, Discovery.
This book feels personal to me, despite my lack of any connection to NASA or space travel. Those memories are why I read the book, and why I’ll recommend it to anyone who asks about my recent favorites. It’s just that good.
Pair with my other favorite 2021 narrative nonfiction choice: We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth Norman. The parallels are courageous female subjects and stellar writing. Otherwise, the topics are entirely divergent, which still makes for a meaningful pair.
As a side note, I also recommend the unique series from Apple TV called For All Mankind. It’s a mix of history and speculative fiction that pairs wonderfully with The Burning Blue. And additionally, it’s a little surreal to read this book and then watch the SpaceX “tourist” launch just a few days later.