This week marks the 35th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, when the craft exploded about a minute after takeoff, killing the seven-person crew including Christa McAuliffe, who was set to be the first teacher in space.
McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher in Concord, N.H., was selected for the 1986 mission from a nationwide NASA search. She had planned, once in orbit, to deliver science and engineering lessons from space. Teachers, including some of McAuliffe’s fellow finalists for the flight, traveled to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to see the shuttle lift off. And classrooms across the country had switched on TVs, planning to show students the historic launch.
Instead, students and teachers witnessed a tragedy unfold live. In the aftermath, Education Week covered schools’ efforts to help their students process what had happened.
The launch had a lasting impact on a generation of children who watched. Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy before, or 9/11 after, it became a defining historical moment—students would remember where they were when it happened.
In the minutes after the explosion, students sat in stunned silence, cried, and put their heads down on their desks in disbelief, Education Week reported at the time. “There are some kids who are angry,” the director of a grief counseling program for students said then. Students thought the space agency had pushed for the launch in unsafe conditions, she said.
Some educators remembered the shock of the experience when planning for another historical milestone this school year.
In Greenwich, Conn., Superintendent Toni Jones banned the live viewing of President Joe Biden’s inauguration in pre-K-8 classrooms, citing fears of a repeat of the violence on Jan. 6, when right-wing rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
“As we had learned from the horrors of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, viewing live events can have the potential of showing disturbing images,” Jones wrote in a message to families, students, and staff, according to the Greenwich Time.
Honoring McAuliffe’s life and legacy
In the years since the Challenger launch, teachers and educational organizations have memorialized McAuliffe and invoked her legacy to encourage students’ interest in STEM. And many of McAuliffe’s former students went on to become teachers themselves, inspired by her life and passion for education.
“When we talk to students about the Challenger tragedy, we really focus on the inspiration of the crew and the incredible lives that they led, and the mission that they were going to be on,” said Denise Kopecky, the vice president for education at Challenger Center, a STEM education nonprofit founded in 1986 by the members of the crew’s families.
Their goal, Kopecky said, is to show that “people all the time are explorers and innovators, and that we’re hoping they will become explorers and innovators and thinkers.”
The organization has a network of learning centers across the United States, Canada, and South Korea that run space simulations for students to spark interest in STEM courses and careers. During the pandemic, they’ve offered virtual missions for remote learning.
“We want kids to make that connection to the team that they’re on and the job that they’re doing,” Kopecky said. “It’s not just an experiment that’s one off, people really do these jobs in real life.”
For teachers looking to talk about the Challenger with their students or discuss McAuliffe’s life and work, the following resources can be a starting point:
- Christa’s Lost Lessons: In 2018, NASA and the Challenger Center started releasing the “lost lessons"—the science demonstrations that McAuliffe had planned as part of the mission. Taught by astronauts Ricky Arnold and Joe Acaba and filmed on the International Space Station, the lessons are now available online.
- Discovery Education Challenger Lessons: Includes resources and activities explaining the event for grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.
- Challenger: The Final Flight: This Netflix documentary, released in 2020, investigates the causes of the disaster and how the launch went wrong. It also explores the lives of the crew, featuring interviews with their family members. See a review and discussion questions from Common Sense Media here.