Christa McAuliffe Day
Space Shuttle Challenger lifts off on January 28, 1986.
January 27th, 2012
02:06 PM ET

Christa McAuliffe Day

by John Martin, CNN

I touch the future. I teach. - Christa McAuliffe 

Twenty-six years ago this Saturday, I was home from school. I remember that because I watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger launched a New Hampshire high school teacher and six NASA astronauts into the sky. Their flight only lasted 73 seconds  and ended in tragedy, but McAuliffe’s legacy as a pioneer and a teacher endures. This Saturday, the 26th anniversary of that fateful flight, is designated Christa McAuliffe Day in her honor.

In August of 1984 President Ronald Reagan announced that a teacher would be the first civilian in space. McAuliffe was one of 11,000 applicants to the Teacher in Space program. She wasn't a science teacher; her field was social studies.  On her application she said, “I watched the space program being born, and I would like to participate.” In July of 1985, Vice President George H.W. Bush announced McAuliffe's selection as the first teacher in space. Before the launch on a frigid January day, McAuliffe remarked, “Imagine a history teacher making history.”

Courtesy NASA
During the Challenger mission, McAuliffe was scheduled to perform a number of experiments and lessons for the classroom. The Public Broadcasting System planned to televise two of her lessons. Her first lesson, “The Ultimate Field Trip” would have featured a tour of the shuttle, while her second lesson, "Where We've Been, Where We're Going," was meant to demonstrate the impact of the space program on technology.

McAuliffe also planned to conduct science lessons in microgravity, demonstrating magnetism, physics and hydroponics – growing plants without soil.   She would also be responsible for performing three student experiments during the mission: examining chicken embryo growth, researching a titanium alloy, and observing crystal growth.

As a former science teacher myself, I lament that these lessons were never shared with the world. The images that should have been etched in my mind, and the ones that I would have eventually shared with my students, were those of a teacher performing science experiments in space. These memories were replaced by the sudden and catastrophic fireball when Challenger and her crew perished.

McAuliffe didn't live during this Internet age, but search for her name on the Web and you will find not just her story, but also ways in which institutions all across the country have memorialized her. There are education awards and scholarships given in her honor. Public schools and science centers are named for her, as well as an asteroid, and craters on the moon and on Venus.

A year after the tragedy, the Challenger crew's family members founded the Challenger Center , which funds interactive space science education centers in dozens of states and the United Kingdom and Canada.

In 2004, McAuliffe and the entire Challenger crew were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the highest American award for spaceflight achievement.

Teacher Barbara Morgan trained alongside McAuliffe in the Teacher in Space program; she was to be McAuliffe's backup. Morgan wasn’t launched  in the Discovery mission that followed Challenger. For a while she continued her duties with the Teacher in Space program from earth, and then continued her teaching career. In 1998, Morgan became NASA's first Educator Astronaut, which required two years of training. On August 8, 2007, aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour, Morgan finished the promise of McAuliffe’s mission, a teacher traveling in space.

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soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. daylily1111

    I have a shefflera plant that comes from Christa's original plant. Pieces of the original have been rooted and potted to grow into new ones. Every couple of years, cuttings are taken, rooted and passed on to people who will keep it alive.

    January 30, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  2. Tom2

    I remember that day well.
    I stayed home from work due to the flu and saw it occur on TV live. Horrible.
    It took hours to sink in that those brave people aboard Challenger were just "gone".
    My favorite of course was Christa, who represented the common man/woman. God bless you Christa.

    January 30, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  3. Mike Friedman

    The worst day between JFK's assassination and 9/11.

    January 29, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  4. Reggie

    I was a senior in high school sitting in chemistry class when this tragedy happened. I come back to that day every time I see her face. To watch the space scuttle launch in those days was spectacular, but through the years I wondered how come we are not more advanced in traveling our solar system? We can't even build a better gasoline engine that would make our lives easier.

    January 29, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  5. fvp

    i remember that day. i was six years old in Ms. San Jose's class.. just plain sad. to watch that on a 15 inch tv.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  6. Larry

    That poor teacher died in a publicity stunt.

    January 29, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Ron

      Larry,

      I was not just a publicity stunt... I agree that was a big part of it, but not all.

      January 30, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  7. Stephen

    I just remember so clearly my friend coming to class saying, "We were watching the Space Shuttle launch on TV in the Media Center... it blew up!"
    I said, "Your kidding.... naw no way!"
    "No, really... I'm serious.", she said.
    Then the principal made the announcement on the PA, and it was clear that we had experienced a horrible tragedy.

    January 28, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  8. Jon

    One of my most vivid memories of 5th grade, I had all the magazines and if memory serves me correctly my teacher in 2rd grade had told us she was trying to get into the Teacher in space program. I remember lots of kids and teachers crying and of course all the tasteless jokes.

    January 28, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  9. Edward Wilkins

    I remember that day as well.

    We were all excited because our school was sending students back to their homerooms to watch the launch live. We had a small break before the show aired and I was selling jolly ranchers out of my locker in school.

    I remember being happy all around for Christine. I was very young, but I remember that day and the explosion vividly.

    Though she may not have safely completed her mission, she is still a hero to many of the folks young and old who saw that tragedy.

    January 28, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  10. jbug

    This is one of those memories that are engrained in my school girl memory. What a shocking and horrific moment. I think the first time I experienced despair; somewhere around first grade. I'm so glad we continue to honor this woman and her desire to make history for educational purposes. Let's not forget the other members of the Challenger today.

    January 28, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  11. Barbara

    I was 7 years old when the Challenger suffered its fateful day. I grew up here on the east coast of Florida. I remember our entire school being sent outside to watch that launch. And then I just remember being confused when the explosion occurred.... My two older sisters were in the same school. I remember the shock, confusion and then the crying. It is a day that has always been within my heart.

    January 28, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  12. Ann Chang

    I feel so touched seeing a brave woman still remembered after so many years.
    But I can't help noticing 2 grammatical errors in this article.
    In the 2nd paragraph, "She wasn't a science teacher, her field was social studies."
    Shouldn't it be "She wasn't a science teacher. Her field was social studies,"
    or " She wasn't a science teacher, her field (being) social studies?"
    And in the 5th paragraph, "The images ... were that of ...."
    Since images are plural, "those" should be used instead of "that."

    January 28, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Amy

      Ms. Chang – a better solution instead of 2 short sentences sounding like they've been written by a First Grader would be the use of semi-colon: She wasn't a science teacher; her field was social studies. A semi-colon brings 2 similar sentences together allowing for 2 subjects and 2 predicates.

      (And I just re-read to look for your "errors" to see that they fixed the first one as I suggested – before I suggested it – and they must've fixed the second error as you suggested.!)

      January 29, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  13. Ray Hawes

    I watched Challenger begin its flight, from our West Palm Beach, Florida Campus. It was a beautiful, cold, sky blue morning and it felt like we could reach out and grab the shuttle. Some are Born to Sweet Delight, Some are Born to Endless Night.

    January 27, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  14. Dale N.M.

    Christa and the others would not be dead today, if the narcissistic pigheaded NASA officials would have listened to the ones who that new not to launch because it was too cold.

    January 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
  15. Lisa Lopez

    Indeed it was a very sad day for American's, families of the astronauts and America's students who were watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger that day. Never will I forget this day and never will I forget the sadness in my own mother's eyes as we talked about it after she got home from teaching that day.

    Maybe one day again another teacher will venture into space or a similar maiden voyage and they too will bring adventure and discovery to our youth and open an entirely new path of education again.

    God bless the Crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger and may their loved ones remember them with pride and find peace in their rememberance.

    January 27, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Colleen

      Lisa , Looks like we did have a teacher in space – see the last paragraph of the article :Teacher Barbara Morgan trained alongside McAuliffe in the Teacher in Space program; she was to be McAuliffe's backup. Morgan wasn’t launched in the Discovery mission that followed Challenger. For a while she continued her duties with the Teacher in Space program from earth, and then continued her teaching career. In 1998, Morgan became NASA's first Educator Astronaut, which required two years of training. On August 8, 2007, aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour, Morgan finished the promise of McAuliffe’s mission, a teacher traveling in space

      January 28, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  16. alice

    I remember that sad day. Nice to see that the world remembers these brave people,.

    January 27, 2012 at 4:59 pm |