Unbelievable things

Prose writer Stephanie Gray on writing her short story 73 Seconds, commissioned Almanac as part of the RISE artistic programme. 

When I was approached about taking part in RISE, I elected to write about ‘Women in Science and Technology’, as I had originally come from such a background. However, as I started my research, little did I realise just broad sweeping and comprehensive has the contribution of women been to the betterment of humankind.

Working with my RISE Mentor, Lizzie Nunnery, it took me a few attempts to find the ‘voice’ I felt was right for this piece. Originally, I had looked at it from a purely ‘technical’ point-of-view focussing on the achievements that had been made. But I was never entirely happy with this approach; I felt it needed something more, something that told us about the person, not just the deed.

The latter part of ’73 Seconds’ was one of the several, but brief, elements I had put in my original ‘montage of stories’. But as I started stripping it back, trying to find the heart of it, it always remained.

Eventually, I came to realise that Christa was the ‘voice’ I had been looking for; not just from the fact she had been selected to be an astronaut, but that she had done so from quite an everyday background. And she represented that, within each and every woman, there is a talent and courage to do unbelievable things.

And as to the style of the piece? I wanted the reader to go on that journey with her, stand in her shoes, feel the highs and lows that she went through and, particularly for women, share a ‘sister’ bond with her. There is a part of Christa in each of us and we unknowingly express it every day!

73 Seconds

A short story by Stephanie Gray

Commissioned by Almanac as part of the RISE creative programme

Concord, New Hampshire, USA: a small town, some might say a sleepy, white picket fences sort of place. Where nothing much really happens when compared to a New York or a Los Angeles. A place where the inhabitants are mostly happy living in their anonymity, getting on with their lives, and letting the world just pass them by.

It’s the start of the academic year at the High School as a curly brown-haired woman, someone you might not notice if they passed you on the street or at the shopping mall, strides with purpose through the building and into the classroom. Although she’s walked into a new school many times before, she can’t escape the excitement and nervousness she always feels on that first day as she anticipates the new challenges ahead of her. “Good morning, everyone!”, she says. “I’m Mrs Christa McAuliffe. Your new history and social studies teacher…” And so, her day, her new year, her new life is about to begin.

A few months into her new job, Christa’s at home, relaxing after a hard day made up of the usual classroom work, followed by the evening ritual of feeding, cleaning and putting her two young children to bed and then, finally, a mountain of homework, now marked, ready for the next day. She sees an item in the newspaper announcing a national competition: “This sounds interesting! What do you think?” showing her husband, Steve.

“Really?”, he replies a little brusquely, “Your life’s here in Concord, with your feet on the ground, not with your head in the clouds.”

Christa frowns: “If I don’t do it, I’ll only regret it for the rest of my life.” And with that, she determinedly reaches for paper and pen.

It’s early July, there’s a rattle of the family home letterbox and Christa sees an official looking letter bearing her name lying on the mat. With some trepidation she picks it up and opens it:

“Dear Mrs McAuliffe,

      We wish to inform you…”

The rest of the words become a blur as she tries to take them all in. The world around her fades, time stands still; at that moment there is only her and the letter.  All her dreams from when she was a little girl, all her hopes that she poured into that application, months before, are laid out in the sentences on that piece of paper. A few days later, the Vice President of the United States announces to the country that Christa McAuliffe is to become the first teacher to go into space.

What follows is a whirlwind of training and preparation. Like an athlete, she has to condition her mind and body for the rigours, as Captain James T Kirk of the Starship Enterprise once described it, of boldly going to that “final frontier”. Simulation after simulation, test after test, being thrown around and crushed under g-forces, floating in zero gravity with her soon-to-be shipmates aboard the aeroplane they fondly call “The Vomit Comet” which, all too often, lives up to its name. Alongside these, she rehearses and rehearses the lessons she’s going to give. She worries that she might let her class down back in Concord, but she endures and trains hard because as she says: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

October, three months before her mission, Christa’s at the Kennedy Space Centre, with one of the other crew, anonymous, just a face in the crowd watching the launch of the Challenger shuttle. She jumps up and down, laughing and yelling for joy as, with a roar of thunder and fire, it lumbers into the sky, picking up speed until it arcs majestically into the void. Soon it will be her time to follow that same path, to touch the heavens and look down upon the earth.

T-30 days: It emerges from its shell into the bitterly cold, bright day. Weeks of preparation have come to fruition as it starts to crawl along the gravel road, its workers scurry around it like ants, gently nudging it to keep it on course, nursing it, attending to its every need. But this is not the work of Mother Nature: this is the hand of man. The huge tractor trundles on bearing its precious cargo which gleams a brilliant white in the sunshine, pointing to the sky and proclaiming itself, in all its majesty, as the pinnacle of mankind’s achievements: a technological wonder.

T-29 days: The vehicle has disgorged the shuttle which is now cocooned within a gantry of steel from which hoses, electrical wires and service lines snake out, feeding and monitoring it; like a caterpillar inside a chrysalis patiently waiting for the moment when it will burst forth into the world. For the next few weeks, systems will be prepared and tested; statuses are checked, rechecked, and checked again.

T-43 hours: The clock begins its countdown. Control room personnel begin to assemble and start their work on the systems and software.

T-27 hours: The launch pad is cleared of non-essential personnel as the clock ticks into the critical part of the launch.

T-19 hours: Final preparations are carried out on the orbiter readying it for fuelling and flight.

T-11 hours: Weather and engineering reports are pored over and final checks of the launch-pad are made.

T-6 hours: Christa and her fellow astronauts start suiting up. Some chat with their attendants as they struggle into their flight suits, adopting positions that wouldn’t look out of place in a yoga class, stretching to push arms and legs through joints and sleeves. Others are simply lost in their own thoughts.

At the same time, the final visual checks of the orbiter take place and the external fuel tank is filled with half a million gallons of propellant: enough to break the bonds that hold it down.

Back in Concord an air of excitement flows through the High School. The pupils will get to watch their teacher, their Mrs McAuliffe, do something no other teacher has ever done before and they are so immensely proud of her. As launch approaches, lessons are all but forgotten as staff and students cluster around every available television hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

T-3 hours: Time to go. With beaming smiles, Christa and the rest of the crew make their way to the launch pad. She holds her breath as she gazes up and takes in the orbiter which will be her home for the next six days and ninety-six orbits of Planet Earth. They enter the cockpit, take their positions, get strapped in by the support personnel, and the hatch is closed.

With the rest of her crew, she works through her parts of the pre-flight schedule. The inexorable communication between the shuttle and Mission Control eats through the remaining time until there is nothing more for them to do, the moment they’ve all trained for has arrived.

T-9 minutes: In Mission Control there’s a final “Go/No Go” poll of the control room launch team. Everyone says “Go!”

T-5 minutes: The last arm holding the shuttle in place swings away from the craft. It’s on its own now, free from the shackles that have bound it for the last few weeks: it’s ready to fly!

T-10 seconds: The final few moments of the countdown are broadcast over the Tannoy to the crowds that have been waiting for hours in the public areas several miles away, or parked up by the sides of highways listening to their radios; all eyes turned to the launch pad in shared anticipation of the power and fury that’s about to be unleashed. The clock ticks to zero, there is an infinitesimal moment of silence before the solid booster rockets ignite and, with an unearthly rumble, the shuttle lifts off the pad.

The roar inside the capsule is deafening and Christa’s vital signs shoot through the roof as she realises that it’s finally happening, she’s on her way to space! She takes a deep breath because in this part of the journey she’s just a passenger, so she might as well sit back and enjoy the ride of a lifetime; the real work will start soon enough.

T+3 seconds: Mission Control announces that lift-off is confirmed, the vehicle has cleared the tower. 

T+28 seconds: They’re at ten thousand feet and climbing.

T+41 seconds: They’re at nineteen thousand feet and now travelling at the speed of sound.

But there’s a flaw. A flaw in the design of the engines that will only come to light on this freezing cold morning of January 28th 1986.

T+48 seconds: A flash is seen on the right wing, followed by a second, then a third.

T+59 seconds: There’s a plume of flame on one of the boosters.

T+62 seconds: They’re at thirty-five thousand feet and touching a thousand miles an hour.

T+64 seconds: A bright glow appears on the main fuel tank.

Unaware that Challenger is now in serious trouble, the pilot confirms his next action with Mission Control and continues the shuttle’s ascent by throttling the engines to full power. Howling with renewed energy, they push the craft onward towards the stars.

T+72 seconds: One of the booster rockets starts to detach from the main body.

T+73 seconds: There’s another flash and, at a height of forty-eight thousand feet, Challenger disappears in a white billowing cloud and all data transmissions from it suddenly stop. Seconds pass, pieces of shuttle and rocket are flung in different directions as if they were part of a firework display. But the still intact crew cabin carries on upward, seemingly desperate to fulfil its mission, until the unforgiving embrace of gravity reaches out and takes hold…

The classrooms at Concord High fall silent; no-one is sure what’s just happened. Then, one of teachers realises, gasps as she instinctively puts her hand to her mouth in shock, and quietly says: “Christa…”

Just before that fateful flight, Christa said in a press conference: “You have to dream. We all have to dream. Dreaming is okay. Imagine me teaching from space, all over the world, touching so many people’s lives. That’s a teacher’s dream! I have a vision of the world as a global village, a world without boundaries. Imagine a history teacher making history!”

And she was, and is, and will be every woman who dares to think the unthinkable; a woman who dreamt of doing extraordinary things. Whose limits were only defined by the breadth of her imagination and the depths of space.

In memory of Sharon Christa McAuliffe (1948 – 1986)

Finest Hour – lyrics by Lizzie Nunnery

Were you there with me in my majesty

At the barricades, on the record sleeve

I was blessed proof, you were born to believe

I was living art, you were on your knees



Don’t pick me out in the crowd

Don’t call my name out loud

Don’t throw your light on me, you’ll see

It’s not my finest hour


And if I made you laugh, hold on to that

If I was gentle then, if I was elegant

Keep the photographs, keep the magazine scraps

Piece me back together again




But in the right shade

With the dusk behind me

I’m all ablaze

I’m all I might be

On the rolling stage

When the daylight finds me I fade


I’ll climb the Anglican tower

Call over rooftop and spire

I’m not the one you admire

It’s not my finest hour


A beautiful youth is dancing in the dark

A beautiful youth is dancing in the dark

My beautiful youth is dancing in the dark with me



Thin Air by Deborah Morgan

It’s the beach I’m drawn to, when I think of him back then. He liked to get lost inside his own world, looking out across the water: thoughts threaded between salt, seagulls’ screams, and the warm wind, and flies that landed near the jam butties we’d made.

One Thursday in July, he spent much of the morning collecting shells, stacking them inside two blue buckets, carrying them home himself but not until every drop of light had wandered from the sky. I never told him, but I was always fearful of what secrets the sea held; that, and its quick changes. He was good at staying near me, travelling along the squeaky wooden footpath, buckets clat-clatting all the way to the water, then back to my side, taking the same path again and again. So, despite my fears, I took him often that summer. Sometimes, he’d sit next to me, I’d hold him close, the way his eyes searched mine when he asked a question. ‘Are there sharks in that water, Mummy?’

‘No, no sharks in there, not where you stand, anyway.’

‘Because it’s too wet?’

‘Because it’s not deep enough.’

‘What’s the scariest shark in the world, Mummy?’

‘Well, there is a shark, a very hungry shark that could probably scoff an adult down in one go.’

His green eyes grew big, ‘What’s it called?’

‘The Goblin Shark,’ I squealed, fast-walking my fingers down his back. He giggled and ran towards the water.

He was three-and-a-half the day he went missing. I’d been up most of the night before, my husband’s cough was bad, he worked on a furnace in the local scrap yard, had done for years.

Lying on my towel, sinking into a half-doze; maybe two minutes had gone by, when I bolted up, a terrible feeling of distress flooding through my skin. I looked around, then over to his speck but he wasn’t there, he was gone, disappeared into thin air. The sound my voice made crying out for help was deafening. A woman my age, with twin girls in a buggy folded her arms around me. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find him,’ she said, ‘what’s he wearing?’

I closed my eyes, tried to remember: my brain seemed to be slipping about in my head,  an awful tightening inside my throat, ‘Royal blue shorts, plain white t-shirt, strawberry blonde hair,’ I looked down at his red sandals next to mine, ‘and bare feet.’

     Holding on to the handle of the buggy, we ran across the footpath, ‘Here, this is where he collects shells, this is his speck.’ We looked out, the wind was picking up, waves getting edgy.  ‘Michael! Michael!’ I screamed, he never went into the water, I’d warned him of the dangers.

I looked left, then right, ‘Which way?’ At least four minutes had gone by; a woman carrying a small baby asked me what my son was wearing?

I told her. Pointing left, she said, ‘You two search that way, I’ll go right.’

‘Thank you. But, behind us, the road?’

Another woman came rushing over, saying she would search the road area with her grandson. ‘I’ve rang the police,’ she said, ‘they won’t be long; someone’s gone to tell the patrolling beach officer. Do you want me to ring anybody?’

Denny would go mental if he found out I’d lost our son. We’d watched the news. He’d never forgive me.  I didn’t want him finding out in work, ‘No,’ I said, ‘there’s nobody to phone.’ The rush I felt inside my chest almost knocked me down.

The women hurried away from me, ‘Please, find him,’ I shouted, collapsing into a heap on the sand.

‘I’m Marilyn,’ the woman with the buggy said. ‘What’s your name, love?’

‘Vanessa,’ I said.

‘Look at me Vanessa,’ her voice was hard.

I couldn’t focus.

‘Vanessa! Take your hands from your face and stand up; I said stand up, that’s it; now walk with me. You’ll see him before any of us you know his face, hold onto the pram.’

We pushed through the sand barefoot; standing on tiny shells, their smoothness buried themselves into the soles of my feet. I’d had two miscarriages before he was born, once I saw Michael’s face, all the love I’d lost grew back, with such a vicious hunger that scared me. But in the early days, with his life came this overwhelming sense of responsibility, so great, I found it difficult at times to leave my room.

The memory of his breakfast hugs rose up; he was so excited about today, his squeals, like a wound, weeping from my heart.

The twins were bawling now, Marilyn reached into her bag and pulled out tinfoil, inside were two slices of buttered bread without crusts, the toddlers licked at the butter. Seeing their tongues triggered something in my head. ‘Marilyn, he’s wearing a red cap to match his sandals.’

‘Good,’ she said, ‘we’ll easily spot him now.’

I felt like crying. Everyone was looking for the little boy with strawberry blonde hair.           ‘Come on,’ Marilyn said, ‘stay focussed.’ Having her by my side, and thinking of the other women, giving up their time to search for Michael, kept me walking. The further along the beach we got, the more I found it necessary to look straight ahead, or in the direction of the road, because if I let my eyes drift towards the water, I would jinx it and he’d never be found.

‘Does Michael have a favourite song he likes to sing?’ Marilyn asked.


‘From his school: a favourite song?’

If You’re Happy and You Know It. He loves the hand-clapping.’

‘He might hear us,’ she said, singing it loud above the waves. I joined in, half screaming the words, half losing them, the thin air inside my body now weak and squashed.

It’s all over, a voice inside my head told me. No, it’s not, there’s still hope, another voice screamed. The last of the morning was disappearing, I’d stopped singing, let my fingers slip from the pram, had a change of heart.

  ‘I’m walking back to where my stuff is. I need to phone Denny.’

Marilyn held my hand again, clasped it over the bar of the buggy.

‘It’s like something out of a nightmare,’ I said. ‘I took my eyes off him for a moment and…’

‘Don’t,’ she said, ‘don’t give up.’

I looked back, hoped I wasn’t walking away from him, could feel the pull of not knowing what to do swell up in me like water inside the belly of a fish. I’d always known what to do in life. I was the decision-maker; this feeling was the beginning of a new death.

In the distance, I spotted a woman, toddler in tow, she seemed to be shouting at us. I looked at the toddler, a little girl in a striped bathing suit. Then I looked at her other hand, red cap, blue shorts, bare feet!

‘Mummy, Mummy,’ he was sobbing, his face red and swollen. ‘You lost me,’ he said.

‘I know I did, I lost you for a little while, I’ve found you now.’ I kissed all of his face, tasted sweet tears, felt the shape of a wonderful blizzard filled with deep joy rise up. ‘I’ll never let that happen again.’

Marilyn and the other women surrounded me. They were clapping, and cheering, their eyes like mine, wet with relief. I could hear the sound of sirens, hugged Marilyn tight, ‘I can’t thank you enough; I only kept it together because you were with me.’

‘You were so brave, Vanessa, I’m afraid I would have well caved in.’

He’d been found sitting on a sand dune sobbing for his Mummy.  Eight minutes he’d been missing, and it felt like eight years. He handed me his buckets full of shells,

‘Here, Mummy, they need washing. Can I have a jam butty, I’m hungry?’

I turned to the people standing around me, ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you all.’

The son I ran through sand and shells and broken screams for, I held him now with all my warmth, held him tighter, feeling lost. In the stillness realised, even after he’d left, he would never be free of me, nor I of him.