Spaceflight Insider

Review: Challenger – An American Tragedy

The flight commentator for the launch of space shuttle Challenger's final mission, Hugh Harris, has written a book entitled: Challenger: An American Tragedy. Photo Credit: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Hugh Harris knows a thing or two about the space shuttle program in general and, sadly, the Challenger tragedy in particular. Harris, was the Public Affairs Officer detailing the pre-launch and launch announcements as they took place on Jan. 28, 1986. Shortly after liftoff, control of the flight is handed from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Harris had been in this position before. After liftoff, he did what he always did, turning in his chair to watch the launch out the LCC’s large windows. It would both grant him a slight reprieve as well as a front row seat to tragedy. He recently took the time to sit down and share his experiences in a new eBook entitled: Challenger – An American Tragedy.

Harris is a warm, friendly person with a quick smile and who is always willing to lend a hand. Given that this past week marked the 28th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I read his book to see what insights it would provide me in terms of the nature of the accident. The book is refreshing in that, rather than go over the technical causes of the loss of STS-51L, it focuses on the personal reflections of Harris and others within NASA at the time. Harris talked a bit about his experiences on that cold day.

Photo Credit: Open Road Media

Challenger An American Tragedy photo credit Open Road Media posted on The SpaceFlight Group Insider

“I completed my commentary by saying, “Lift-off, liftoff of STS-51L and it’s cleared the tower,” Harris said. “At tower clear, Public Affairs commentary switched to Steve Nesbit in Mission Control in Houston. As we watched the shuttle on the monitors in the Firing Room, it looked as though the normal flames from the solid motors began to slowly creep upward to cover the entire orbiter. It took only a blink of the eye, but it seemed like a lifetime. Suddenly Challenger was engulfed by a huge fireball.”

Harris paused during the interview, collecting his thoughts and emotions. When he continued, he talked about whether-or-not he thought the crew could have survived what he had just witnessed.

“I, and probably most other people there, had seen large unmanned rockets explode during flight. We had seen the twisted metal remains that were recovered. I don’t think anyone really believed the astronauts had survived. Nevertheless, we all looked at the tracking camera feeds and hoped we would see the Challenger orbiter emerge, intact, from the ball of flames that covered several square miles of sky,” Harris said.

I asked Harris why he opted to take a more personal tone for his book.

“The space program and any other large program is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But we very rarely get to know those people and tend to believe that progress in science and technology just sort of happens.  Despite the constraints of doing a “short” ebook, I wanted to highlight as many people as I could and show how they go about their business. I tried to get a variety of people so it didn’t just focus on engineers and managers. They are important but the support people in Public Affairs, the news media, logistics, etc. are essential to the functioning of the organization and the world. Plus they’re interesting and valuable people!”

Harris went on to relay that he was trying to avoid a problem which often occurs in similar books. That is the fact that, often-times, they tend to cover the same ground. Moreover, most accounts detailing the Challenger accident tend to be technical in nature.

“There have been a number of books that focus on the hardware problems and management problems that let the accident occur. There are no new revelations to detail in the book. However, the other books spend a great deal of space on the hardware, testing and management. I tried to distill the information but not jump to a conclusion about the people involved. I don’t think anyone intentionally made a bad decision,” Harris said.

Challenger was 73 seconds into its flight when it exploded. Photo Credit: NASA

Challenger was 73 seconds into its flight when it exploded. Photo Credit: NASA

These views were echoed on Friday, January 31 by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana during NASA’s “Day of Remembrance” ceremony.

“We want to make sure that we remember them, that they are not forgotten, “ said Cabana, a four-time space shuttle veteran himself. “We also want to make sure that we learn from these mistakes, so that we don’t make the same mistakes again as we move forward. The decisions that were made during Apollo 1, during Challenger, during Columbia – nobody made those decisions with mal-intent. Everybody was trying to do their very best to ensure the safety of the crew and the success of the mission.”

To conclude, I asked Harris what he felt the most important thing that readers should take away from reading: Challenger – An American Tragedy.

“I hope that people realize that when there are known problems with a technical system or a people system, that just because everything works one or more times doesn’t mean you are going to get away with it forever. In the case of the space shuttle, if the cold weather had not increased the problem the shuttle might have flown many more times without a disaster, but eventually something probably would have happened.”

For his part, Harris feels that, while tragic, would be even more so if not for the fact that so many positive things have emerged out of the ashes.

“The accident was an example of great leadership from the President on down and an example of how to recover from a heart-wrenching and emotional tragedy. The shuttle program, along with all the valuable work that has been done could have been stopped before we went on to complete a national laboratory in space (the International Space Station) and all of the new knowledge it is helping produce,” Harris said. “Challenger and the space program in general shows the value of operating in a very open way. The news media added value to the search for truth and helped insure the lessons learned were communicated to many other areas of society.”

Challenger – An American Tragedy can be purchased for $3.99 on

Hugh Harris’ NASA Biography:

Hugh W. Harris was appointed Director, Public Affairs Office, at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space  Center by Center Director Robert L. Crippen in May 1992.

Photo Credit: NASA

Photo Credit: NASA

As Director of Public Affairs, he guides the Center’s educational programs, media activities, special guest tours and briefings, and the operation of the visitors center, Spaceport USA, NASA’s largest public visitor center.

Harris began his NASA career in 1963 as an information specialist at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and was promoted to Chief of the Public Information Office for Lewis in 1968. He transferred to KSC in 1975 where he was responsible for planning and administering an information program designed to keep the public informed, through the news media, of the activities, results and significance of aerospace programs conducted at the Kennedy Space Center.

In addition to managing the news center, he provided the broadcast commentary for approximately 100 manned and expendable space vehicle launches. In 1985, he became Deputy Director, Public Affairs Office, participating in the management of all KSC public affairs and education awareness activities, as well as NASA-wide planning in these functional areas.

Born in December 1932, he graduated from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1956. He served in the U.S. Army as an information specialist from 1952-1954. Prior to joining NASA, Harris worked as a radio newscaster, a reporter with a metropolitan daily and a magazine
writer for a major energy company.

Significant awards presented to Harris include the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal in 1979, and Exceptional Service Medals in 1985 and 1988. He was also honored by the Spacecoast Chapter of Federally Employed Women with its Distinguished Service Award for 1978-79.

Harris and his wife, Cora, reside in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Harris retired from NASA on April 3, 1998.



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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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