School & District Management

25 Years Later, Challenger’s McAuliffe Remembered

By Liana Loewus — January 25, 2011 6 min read
Jacob Komissar, an 8th grader at the McAuliffe Regional Charter Public Middle School in Framingham, Mass., works on a class project marking the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, which took the life of teacher Christa McAuliffe.
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At the time, some people compared the frozen-in-time feeling they experienced that day to the moment they heard President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Today, many also conjure the shock of watching the World Trade Center towers fall in 2001. But nearly everyone who was of school age or older in 1986 vividly remembers the day when the space shuttle Challenger burst into flames just 73 seconds after takeoff, claiming the lives of all seven astronauts aboard—including Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.

Friday, Jan. 28, marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. Around the country, teachers—some of them classroom veterans, others too young to recall those terrible moments—will describe the day’s historical significance to their students. And schools, universities, and space-focused education organizations will commemorate Ms. McAuliffe and her fellow crew members with both large-scale events and small tributes.

• At the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Fla., the site of the Challenger launch, the Astronauts Memorial Foundation will gather as many as 1,000 people for a ceremony in honor of the crew.

In early January 1986, Christa McAuliffe receives a preview of microgravity during a special flight aboard NASA’s KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft. The Concord, N.H., social studies teacher was chosen for a mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded during takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986, claiming the lives of the entire crew.

• The Houston Challenger Learning Center, one of 48 educational hubs of the Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit Challenger Center for Space Science Education, will host a live national webcast connecting students with astronauts.

• The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will hold a “Day of Remembrance” at Arlington National Cemetery on Jan. 27 for all the astronauts who have died in service.

• At Concord High School in New Hampshire, where Ms. McAuliffe taught, a group of 40 or so teachers from the 1986 staff will convene for a reunion. Retired teacher Susan Capano, who organized the potluck gathering, said she’s looking forward to seeing her old colleagues, with whom she shared the elation leading up to the launch—and then the ensuing shock and grief.

And at a small Massachusetts school that bears Ms. McAuliffe’s name, students will carry out the teacher-astronaut’s legacy by completing sophisticated space-research projects.

Touching the Future

Aftermath of a Tragedy

Read Education Week‘s original 1986 coverage of the Challenger tragedy and its aftermath in our interactive edition:

Links to these stories and Education Week‘s complete coverage of the NASA program are available on our Teachers in Space page.

The 8th graders at the 250-student McAuliffe Regional Charter Public Middle School, in Framingham, Mass., have been investigating current space themes—such as new designs for spacesuits, ionized propulsion, and the climate on Venus—by working with experts in the field. The students visited labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in nearby Cambridge, Skyped with researchers in Japan, and interviewed meteor specialists at NASA to delve into their topics.

“This is research they’re doing now on space,” Dan Anderson, the 10th-year teacher who created and is leading the projects, said. “It’s not old research being redone. These are things you can’t find information on in books.”

This Friday, to honor the educator whose name their school bears, the students will present their research at the Christa McAuliffe Center at Framingham State College, where Ms. McAuliffe received her bachelor’s degree.

The projects are a tribute on several levels to Ms. McAuliffe, who famously said, “I touch the future, I teach.” Ms. McAuliffe’s goal as an educator “was to get kids interested in the space program, because she had been a fan of the space program ever since it started,” Ms. Capano, her former colleague, said. “She wanted to see kids fascinated by space.”

Ms. McAuliffe was also a proponent of hands-on, experiential learning—the kind Mr. Anderson’s class is engaging in. As a social studies teacher at Concord High, Ms. McAuliffe “really did not want students to skim over the surface of history,” said Mary Liscombe, the director of the Christa McAuliffe Center, which provides curriculum resources and professional-development programs for mathematics and science teachers and is part of the Challenger Learning Center network.

“There’s a parallel I see between Christa and what Dan is doing to engage kids to learn more deeply about a subject matter and not just have them read a book and take a test,” added Ms. Liscombe, who also attended college at Framingham State with Ms. McAuliffe.

Elevating the Profession

In remembering Ms. McAuliffe, many educators highlight her abiding dedication to the teaching profession.

An Honorable Legacy

Below is a selection of honors and awards bestowed in teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe’s name.

Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education
American Association of State Colleges and Universities
Given annually to recognize teacher education programs that foster innovation and documented success among graduates.

Christa McAuliffe “I Touch the Future, I Teach” Award
Arizona Education Association
A $25,000 honorarium given each year to an Arizona educator who embodies the qualities of inspiration, committment, and leadership.

Christa McAuliffe Outstanding Teacher Award
Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools
An award given annually to a standout teacher in a district in which Christa McAuliffe taught early in her career.

Christa McAuliffe Prize for Courage and Excellence in Education
University of Nebraska
A $1,000 stipend given annually to a Nebraska teacher who exhibits extraordinary courage in his or her work.

Christa McAuliffe Reach for the Stars Award
National Council for the Social Studies
A $2,500 grant given annually to help social studies educators develop and implement innovative classroom projects.

Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical
New Hampshire Charitable Foundation
Provides a yearlong paid leave of absence to an exceptional New Hampshire public school teacher to pursue a self-designed project.

Tennessee Christa McAuliffe Scholarship Program
Tennessee Student Assistance Corp.
A $500 college-scholarship program designed to assist top-ranked Tennessee students enrolled in teacher education programs.

Turner N. Wiley Teacher of the Year Award
The Challenger Center for Space Science Education
An honor given annually to teachers around the country who “exemplify the spirit of the Challenger crew’s education mission.”

Ms. Capano recalled that, when Ms. McAuliffe was selected in July 1985 to be the first teacher in space, she promptly began a full schedule of NASA training and speaking tours. But on the first day of school at Concord High that fall, Ms. McAuliffe was back on campus.

“She had told her handlers in Houston to fly her back to New Hampshire,” Ms. Capano said, “so they sent her back for a couple of days.” Ms. McAuliffe was both devoted and “gutsy,” she added.

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, remembered that throughout the media blitz before the shuttle launch, Ms. McAuliffe, an NEA member, held true to her roots as a teacher. “She spoke to audiences from the viewpoint of a teacher who taught kids,” he said.

Barbara Morgan, the Boise, Idaho, teacher who had been selected as Ms. McAuliffe’s backup and also trained with the Challenger astronauts, said that even on the day before the launch, Ms. McAuliffe sat in the crew quarters writing college recommendations for her students.

Ms. McAuliffe was also a charismatic speaker. “No matter the size of the audience, she had them in the palm of her hand,” said Mr. Van Roekel.

Indeed, Ms. McAuliffe’s engaging and confident personality is believed to have helped NASA overcome initial skepticism about the teacher-in-space program, which some educators viewed as a gimmick to bolster support for the space agency. As the nation’s enthusiasm for the flight grew, teachers came to see Ms. McAuliffe as a symbol of prestige and honor for all her classroom colleagues.

“She was held up as someone who could elevate the profession, which she did so well,” Mr. Van Roekel said.

“People took interest in the teaching profession,” Ms. Liscombe said. “The focus of the nation was on that mission and on that flight.”

Ms. Morgan, who in 2007 became the first teacher to complete a space mission, added: “Christa served as a great reminder to everybody that the key to education is good teachers, and that we had and have good teachers all over this country.”

Jacob Komissar, an 8th grader at the McAuliffe Regional Charter Public Middle School in Framingham, Mass., works on an acetate drawing of a space shuttle. The space-research project helps mark the anniversary this week of the Challenger crash.

For NASA, Ms. McAuliffe helped boost the importance of efforts in education, said Ann Marie Trotta, a spokeswoman for the agency. While education has been part of NASA’s mission since the agency’s beginning, said Ms. Trotta, Ms. McAuliffe gave it a public face, and the education program has since expanded.

Mr. Van Roekel, a former high school math teacher, also believes that Ms. McAuliffe played a significant role in opening doors in math and science education for women. “When you think of the time, that’s when we really started real efforts to knock down stereotypes that math and science were for boys and not girls,” the union president said.

Carrying on the Mission

The loss of the Challenger crew could have quashed the teacher-in-space concept, along with educators’ heightened enthusiasm for space exploration, some observers suggest. It did put NASA’s program on hold for more than a decade. But many space education organizations have sprung up since the accident—notably the network of Challenger Learning Centers, where 400,000 students each year participate in simulated flight missions.

Dan Barstow, the president of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which oversees the regional learning centers, said the programs are meeting national and state education standards, but “more importantly, are exciting kids about learning and exploring,” which he believes would have made Ms. McAuliffe “exceptionally proud.”

“There’s a generation of teachers who were around and teaching at the time of the Challenger accident. For us, clearly, she was such an exceptional teacher, such an inspiring astronaut and educator. We still remember her and feel that,” said Mr. Barstow. “It was such a deep-searing moment in the nation’s soul, and we have an obligation to carry on that mission, that legacy, to inspire kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as 25 Years After Challenger Tragedy, McAuliffe Continues to Inspire


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