The Challenger Disaster: Background information when reading My Sunshine Away

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My Sunshine Away

by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh X
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2015, 320 pages

    Apr 2016, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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The Challenger Disaster

This article relates to My Sunshine Away

Print Review

"The day I fell in love with Lindy Simpson was January 28, 1986. This was also the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and seven courageous astronauts died. I was eleven years old and in fifth grade."

Although not a historical novel, M.O. Walsh's My Sunshine Away evokes a real sense of the recent past when the narrator, fourteen years old in the main action of the novel, recalls the Challenger disaster of 1986. This was a time when it was "exotic" to watch cable television at school and Walsh's attention to detail – the televisions with plastic knobs and buttons beneath the screens and President Ronald Reagan fiddling with a paperclip before addressing the nation later that day – will doubtless evoke strong personal memories for many readers. Although Walsh's narrator's memories of the event are tied up in his feelings for another character, for many who were children in the 1980s, this disaster was the "where were you when...?" moment for their generation.

The explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle claimed seven lives and was unfortunately watched live on television by many school children across America who were actively following the "ultimate field trip" of teacher Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe, a mother of two, was a New Hampshire high school history teacher who became the first civilian selected to go into space through the Teacher in Space project. Eleven thousand teachers had filled out the twenty-five page application booklet. Successful finalists then completed an intense process of medical tests, psychological assessments and interviews before McAuliffe was chosen in July 1985.

The Challenger Disaster But on January 28, 1986, seventy-three seconds after take off, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. It was established later that cold weather had reduced the resiliency of two rubber O-shaped rings that sealed the right-hand rocket booster. This weakness between the parts allowed hot gas to leak and ultimately the large external fuel tank exploded. The forward section of the Challenger Space Shuttle carrying the crew was severed and plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean.

NASA was severely criticized for the disaster. The report of The Rogers Commission in June 1986 stated that NASA had been aware of the potential weakness in the O-rings but had not responded appropriately. Decision-making processes at NASA were described as seriously flawed.

One person very closely affected by the tragedy was the back-up candidate for Christa McAuliffe – also selected through the Teacher in Space project – Barbara Morgan. After the accident, NASA asked Morgan if she would continue with them and she agreed to do so. In January 1998 she became a professional astronaut and in 2007 she was part of the crew of Space Shuttle Endeavor undertaking a two-week space mission to the International Space Station. Although a full-time astronaut and therefore not a civilian in space — as McAuliffe had hoped to be — Morgan remained very much a teacher and left NASA to return to education at Boise State University in 2008. To learn more about other astronauts, read the Beyond the Book for Dept. of Speculation.

The Challenger disaster was sadly captured widely on film as the tragedy unfolded in front of a national television audience:

Picture of Challenger disaster from Central Washington University

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Kate Braithwaite

This "beyond the book article" relates to My Sunshine Away. It originally ran in March 2015 and has been updated for the April 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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