25 years later, US teachers remember Christa McAuliffe


A photograph of Crista McAuliffe, signed by her mother, hangs in the hall of Christa McAuliffe Middle School in Bangor Township, Bay City Michigan. (AP)

Published: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 11:53 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 9:54 p.m.

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. 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, and around the country, teachers will describe the day's historical significance to their students. 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.

-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.

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.

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

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.”

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.

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.”

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