At 11:39 A.M. Eastern Standard Time last Tuesday, in a flash of fire and smoke seen by millions, the nation’s teaching corps gained a long-awaited moment in the public spotlight.
But it was a terrible moment, bought at a price that no one had foreseen.
Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher and the first “ordinary person” in space, died with six other crew members of the shuttle Challenger when it exploded 10 miles above the Florida coast and 74 seconds after liftoff.
It was a day of cruel ironies and common grief.
Jubilant teachers and schoolchildren had cheered Ms. McAuliffe as she entered the spacecraft. On board, she received a symbolic apple from NASA technicians. And farther away, in classrooms throughout America, children awaited the televised start of a space adventure dedicated to them.
The stage was set for America’s “Teacher in Space” to fulfill a personal dream and complete the project that had stirred the collective imagination of her profession.
But in the briefest of interludes, the script went awry. Joy turned to sorrow. Technology’s brightest promise lost its luster. And what was to be a classroom in space became in one awful instant a lesson in mortality.
Ms. McAuliffe’s role as the first private citizen in space has sharpened the nation’s interest in the flight. And her incongruous fate—to be also among NASA’s first in-flight casualties—left a deep national scar.
In what was believed to be an unprecedented gesture, President Reagan postponed that evening’s State of the Union address. Flags were lowered to half mast. The Olympic torch in Los Angeles was relit. On Wall Street, the stock exchange went silent for a solemn minute of respect. Washington’s Air and Space Museum drew crowds paying tribute to the shuttle crew’s black-draped official portrait.
And in cities and towns across the nation, people sought through memorial services and conversation to relieve the sense of loss.
They also sought meaning. Why had the impossible happened?
The wisdom of sending citizen-astronauts into space was questioned. NASA drew heavy criticism for its ambitious schedule of shuttle flights, and for what one congressman called its “public-relations hype.” Some critics even suggested that manned space flights were unnecessary; robots and satellites would suffice, they said.
But in a brief and eloquent speech to the nation, President Reagan called the seven who died “pioneers on the last frontier” and pledged that the space program would go on. Risk, he told America’s children, is the price of achievement. “The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted,” the President said. “It belongs to the brave.”
And on an edition of ABC-TV’s “Nightline,” one child, reading from a class essay she had written on the shuttle accident, expressed in eloquent simplicity the central core of the nation’s grief. She had been scared, and upset, and sad, she said, because Ms. McAuliffe “was a mother and a teacher.”