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Published in Print: February 5, 1986, as A Search for Meaning in Disaster's Wake

A Search for Meaning in Disaster's Wake

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Members of the Maryland State Board of Education were meeting in Baltimore when they heard the news that the shuttle Challenger had exploded.

“There was a kind of shock I had never seen before, not in either of the Kennedy assassinations, not in any catastrophe that we have ever experienced,” said Gus Crenson, the board’s director of communications.

Kathy Rokasy, a 3rd-grade teacher in Elyria, Ohio, had taken her class from the East Gate Elementary School to NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. There the class of 30 watched the launch on a huge screen in a room ringed with six television monitors.

After the explosion and a “dead silence in the room,” Ms. Rokasy said, she asked the children to “explain what they saw.” They calmly asked questions: Was Christa hurt? Did the astronauts die in the ocean? Were the astronauts’ children watching television, too?

Robert Grossman, a member of the communications staff of the Los Angeles Board of Education was driving to work when he heard the news on the radio.

“My first thought was that my boss and the board president were sitting in the grandstand” at Cape Canaveral, he said—“in the same grandstand as the family and kids of Christa.”

“I got a sickening feeling in my stomach, then got a little fuzzy, thinking, ‘Can it be for real?’ ”

Harriet Arvey, director of support services for the Houston Independent School District, was in her office talking with a county mental-health official about establishing a crisis team when a secretary relayed the news.

As an education professional, she said, “my first feelings were thoughts of the teacher. I’m a mother, too, and so of course I thought of her kids.”

“I just sat in my office for a while, listening to the radio, letting it all sink in,” said Ms. Arvey.

Across the country, such scenes were repeated last week as teachers, students, school administrators, and others tried--in public and private ways--to come to grips with the magnitude of the shuttle disaster, in which the “teachernaut” Sharon Christa McAuliffe and six astronauts were killed.

Meetings were halted and class routines were disrupted. At many schools, principals relayed the news over the public-address system, and called on students and staff members to observe a moment of silence.

Reaction in New Hampshire

In Ms. McAuliffe’s home state of New Hampshire, more than a score of education officials viewed the lift-off together on television.

Like other school officials who had gone to Cape Canaveral expecting to see the event firsthand, Robert L. Brunelle, New Hampshire’s education commissioner, had to return to work after the launch was repeatedly delayed.

So Mr. Brunelle and a group of his colleagues at the state education department had gathered around at television set.

“Most people and I did think at first that the solid fuel rockets had just disengaged,” said Mr. Brunelle, recounting the scene as department officials watched the shuttle explode. “But then I realized it was too early in the flight for that to happen.”

Suddenly, he said, “it became very quiet. People were stunned and dismayed.” Like many Americans, he compared the scene to that following the assassination of President Kennedy.

“It’s really a personal loss,” Mr. Brunelle said. “You felt as though ‘Why did this have to happen to this individual?’ Not ignoring the other six, but a lot of us identified with Christa.”

A Renewed Commitment

After the initial shock, many educators began searching for something constructive to salvage amid the disaster.

For some, it meant a renewed commitment to strengthening education in science in technology.

Lynn Bondurant of NASA’s Lewis Research Center--a former teacher, principal, and school-board member who oversees the agency’s educational programs for the Midwest--said: “First we react, then ponder. Hopefully, this won’t lessen our enthusiasm for having educators in space, and sharing new technology with children in schools. We had events scheduled with Christa. She is no longer here, but what she was going into space for--to continue teaching--still is.”

Edith E. Westermann of the Washington, D.C.-based Young Astronauts’ Council, likewise suggested that enthusiasm for science among young people may grow, rather than diminish, in the wake of the tragedy.

Noting that the council had been “flooded” with questions from students and teachers after Tuesday’s accident, she said her group found much support for continuing space exploration.

“Although the tragedy is profound, teachers and students feel that the Young Astronauts and other space programs should be continued,” Ms. Westermann said. “They want Christa McAuliffe’s dream to be realized through dedication to the space program and to education.”

In one effort to deal with the deluge of requests for information, the Young Astronauts group scheduled for last Friday a live interactive television hookup between Chicago’s O’Hare airport and Seattle schools to handle questions from a group of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.

Commemorative Projects

Others announced plans or began discussing ideas for specific commemorative projects at the national, state, and local levels.

In Washington, D.C., Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, asked President Reagan to rename the U.S. Education Department building--which houses some NASA offices--after Ms. McAuliffe.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Brunelle said, “we’re considering two or three kinds of ways in which to commemorate Christa’s spirit, enthusiasm, and commitment to teaching”--among them a scholarship fund.

Judith A. Resnik, one of the astronauts on the Challenger, will be honored in several ways in her hometown, Akron.

At her alma mater, Firestone High School, she will be the first inductee in the school’s “wall of fame,” said the principal, Robert Hatherill.

The school will also name its library for Ms. Resnik, and the Akron Board of Education will establish a scholarship in her name for a female graduate who plans a career in the sciences, Mr. Hatherill said.

Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said NASSP is “kicking around ideas on what to do.”

One possibility, not yet approved by the group’s board, is to give an annual award in Ms. McAuliffe’s name to “a principal who is courageous in some way,” Mr. Thomson said.

“Christa in a woman in the Oregon trail tradition,” he added. “She had extraordinary courage, like the women on the wagon trains.”

Whatever the memorials, whatever the plaques and the tributes, observed Mr. Brunelle, “now I think time will be the best healer of all. It always is. As time goes by, I hope we will have learned something from this.”

As for the first teachernaut, he said, “She will be a role model, absolutely, for youngsters and teachers both.”

And Mr. Bondurant of NASA observed: “The ‘Teacher in Space’ logo is beautiful and a telling symbol. It is a torch coming out from the earth. The flames are to symbolize the light from education and from knowledge.”

We have the responsibility to pass the torch to the next generation,” he continued. “We have to go on.”

Vol. 5, Issue 21, Page 1

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