The Challenger Disaster Cover, First Second Books, Background Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Review: ‘History Comics: The Challenger Disaster’ by Pranas T. Naujokaitis

Comic Books Education Science

I am a little too young to remember the Challenger disaster, but the image of those terrible smoke plumes in the Florida sky is one that has stuck in my mind for my whole life. History Comics: The Challenger Disaster by Pranas T. Naujokaitis is a middle-grade graphic novel that explores the disaster in detail.

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The framework of The Challenger Disaster is set in a classroom aboard a Mars-orbiting space station on January 28th in the year 2386. A class of four diverse students and their teacher are celebrating Challenger Day with the four kids each giving a presentation on one aspect of the disaster that befell mission STS-51-L. One student, Carmen, considers the exercise to be pointless—what’s the point in remembering something that happened 400 years ago? What relevance could it possibly have now? Before they can begin, however, an accident aboard the space station briefly cuts off the artificial gravity and endangers the life of an engineer when he works to fix it.

The Opening Pages of The Challenger Disaster, Image First Second
The Opening Pages of The Challenger Disaster, Image First Second

The first student to give their presentation is Fatima, who explores the space shuttle itself. Using holographic projections to show how the shuttles were created, she explains the history of the shuttle program to her classmates and teacher and later takes them on a virtual reality “field trip” to Kennedy Space Center. Here, they talk with a holographic projection of Francis “Dick” Scobee, Commander of the STS-51-L mission, who acts as their tour guide. The kids get to ride a virtual simulation of the shuttle with Scobee and Fatima explaining each process from countdown through a launch, a typical mission, and landing.

Next to give his presentation is Chris whose topic is the STS-51-L crew. Chris introduces each one of the seven crew members aboard Challenger, covering their personal history, positions and responsibilities aboard Challenger, and why they were picked for the mission. When discussing Christa McAuliffe, he also explains the Teachers in Space program in detail. This section also explores the training procedures the astronauts underwent, especially important given that STS-51-L was to be the first mission with civilians aboard.

After a lunch break where Carmen is able to briefly speak with the engineer who worked on that morning’s accident, the class reconvenes, and their teacher, Ms. Slifer takes over to present the story of the STS-51-L launch. This was one of the hardest parts to read, even knowing that it was coming, and I couldn’t get through it without tears. Despite the jovial, light-hearted style of the book, this part of the story is handled sensitively without becoming morbid, and its impact can be seen on all the class members and their teacher.

Ms Slifer Introduces Challenger Day, Image First Second
Ms Slifer Introduces Challenger Day, Image First Second

The next student to take over is Max, who does his presentation about the aftermath of STS-51-L, specifically the Rogers Commission which was set up to investigate the causes of the disaster. Max gives his classmates some “retro” printed photographs and introduces them to a holograph of Richard Feynman, one of the investigators on the Rogers Commission. Feynman guides the class through the investigation as he saw it, helping them use their own investigative skills to deduce, as he did, the causes behind the disaster, as well as what changes were made as a result.

The fourth and final member of the class—Carmen—is supposed to give her presentation on the lasting impact of the Challenger disaster on humanity. When she gets to the front, she reveals that she had considered the assignment stupid, but has now learned a lot from her classmates and the special guests. Now she understands the importance of STS-51-L, and why it should never be forgotten.

When I first opened The Challenger Disaster to find it was set on a Martian space station and had slapstick humor on almost the first page, I worried that it wouldn’t handle such an important topic in a way that felt appropriate. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The framing device of the kids in their futuristic history class complete with VR trips and holographic guest speakers allows us as readers to become a part of the Challenger story and exploring it through the eyes of important figures like McAuliffe, Scobee, and Feynman which gives the story a far more personal touch than any dry retelling could ever hope for.

Fatima Begins her Presentation, Image First Second
Fatima Begins her Presentation, Image First Second

The latter parts of this book are, naturally, upsetting at times. It’s impossible to write a book about Challenger without discussing some difficult topics and The Challenger Disaster doesn’t shy away from the facts. The sections narrated by Feynman are especially difficult to read as he explains some details about the crew’s experience during the disaster that can lead to some deeply upsetting mental pictures. Parents should be prepared for this and I would advise that they pre-read this book before handing it to young or sensitive readers. Older readers may also be upset and angered by Feynman’s section when they discover that the mission was allowed to take place despite significant safety concerns being raised and ignored. This is a great opportunity to discuss a lot of important topics but young readers might find the implications of what they discover here difficult to process.

The Challenger Disaster is a great book that conveys a huge amount of detail without ever feeling overwhelming or dry. The book is part of a series that so far also includes The Roanoake Colony and The Great Chicago Fire and I know I’ll be picking up some more of these in the future.

GeekMom received a copy of this item for review purposes.

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