I remember exactly where I was when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated on national television. I was sitting in a class room just outside our school gymnasium. Our whole school had been encouraged to watch the lift-off, because the new teacher-in-space program would be implemented on this historic space flight. That teacher was Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe. Her space flight lasted 73 seconds.
Christa McAuliffe grew up in the era of Sputnik and the space race. She wrote on her NASA application that she watched the space age being born and she would love to participate. Her name was chosen out of 11,500 applicants in 1984. Christa was thrilled.
Originally a social studies teacher, with only a master’s degree, Christa McAuliffe had been reluctant to send in her NASA application. Encouraged by her family, she reluctantly agreed. The teacher-in-space program had many doctors and professor’s applications, that Christa’s would contend with. The primary reason that Christa was chosen was her absolute dedication to her students and the level of creativity that she used in her classroom. By all accounts, second only to her husband and children, one boy and one girl, her students were her primary focus. This would translate into dedication for the teacher’s program, that NASA envisioned.
The Challenger lift-off had been delayed, not just once, but twice. There were fuel injector problems and then it was simply too cold. The lift-off would be given the go ahead on January 28th, 1986, even though there were icicles hanging from the launch pad. Christa and her 6 crew members were outfitted and ready to go. I would imagine, the moment was surreal for a high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire. Sitting in my classroom in S.C., I remember that my own teacher, was mesmerized.
Then the moment arrived. Flames shot from the shuttles base and the astronauts were bound for space exploration. They were living their dream and everything they had trained for for months, was in front of them. And then, it all went terribly wrong. I can still see it in my head. There were flames that shot from the side of the space launcher. Then smoke, debris and an odd shaped, smoky cloud was all that we, the T.V. audience, could see. I remember absolute silence for almost a minute. And then, chaos. Watching from the ground at the Kennedy Space Center, were Christa’s family and children.
The official report stated that that an o-ring failed and caused flames in the fuel tank. This caused structural failure. Once that occurred, aerodynamics took over. The space shuttle Challenger carrying Christa and her six crew members, didn’t so much explode as disintegrate. Perhaps the most disturbing of all, is that the cock pit carrying the astronauts would have been automatically ejected. The space crew quite probably lived through the initial blast. There were three life-saving tanks that were in usable position. Only the astronauts aboard Challenger, could have placed them in the positions in which they were found. However, after impact in the Atlantic, all crew members aboard the Challenger were found, dead.
Today there is a Memorial in Arlington National Park that honors the men and women aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. Christa McAuliffe’s face is memorialized there, right beside the other astronauts that she spent her final moments with. There are some remains of 5 of the crew buried there. Christa is one of them. However, her dream did not die with her.
Today Christa’s love for students lives on in The Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center/Challenger Learning Center. The center is designed to teach and help students who loved learning as much as Christa. You can read about Christa’s organization, which is run by her mother and husband, at Christa.org.
Of all the crew members on the doomed Challenger, it is Christa McAuliffe that most people remember. There is something sad and inspiring about the teacher who would be an astronaut. She was a courageous woman, loving wife and mother, and passionate teacher. Christa did not see her dream come to fruition. But they still did.
“Like a woman on the Conestoga wagon, pioneering the West, I too, would be able to bring back my thoughts and my journals to make that a part of history.” Christa McAuliffe: one day before lift off.