The morning of January 28, 1986 dawned cold, bright and blue, however, an unseen black cloud was moving its way towards the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On launch pad 39B, the Space Shuttle Challenger was primed and ready to lift off for Flight STS-51L, the 10th launch for the Challenger and the 25th Shuttle mission. This mission included a special touch – the first civilian to travel into space. Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire had been selected from 11,000+ applicants to be included in the crew.
Born on September 2, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts, Sharon Christa Corrigan was the oldest of Edward Corrigan and Grace George’s five children. Her father was an accountant and her mother worked as a substitute teacher.
As a teenager, Christa was inspired by Project Mercury. After Astronaut John Glenn’s flight around the earth in Friendship 7, her excitement about space travel took off. She told one of her friends, “Do you realize that someday people will be going to the Moon? Maybe even taking a bus, and I want to do that!” Years later when she submitted her application to NASA, she stated, “I watched the Space Age being born, and I would like to participate.”
Christa graduated from Marian High School in 1966 and then received a degree in history and education from Framington State College. Shortly after graduating from college, Christa married her high school sweetheart, Steven J. McAuliffe. Steven had been accepted to Georgetown University Law Center, so the McAuliffes moved to Washington, D.C. In time, two children were born to the couple, Scott and Caroline.
Her first teaching job began in 1970 when Christa taught American history to 8th graders at Benjamin Foulois Junior High School in Morningside, Maryland. This was followed by seven years at Thomas Johnson Middle School in Lanham, Maryland where she taught history and civics. During these years, she also completed a Master of Arts degree in education supervision and administration from Bowie State University. In 1978, Steven accepted a job as an assistant to New Hampshire’s Attorney General, so the family moved to Concord.
Christa acquired a position at Concord High School in 1982. Here she taught several courses – American history, law, economics and social studies. Christa’s method of teaching involved more than just standard lessons. She scheduled numerous field trips and invited a variety of speakers into her classroom in an effort to emphasize the impact “ordinary” people had on history, stating they were just as important as politicians, kings and generals. She also designed a course entitled “The American Woman”.
On August 27, 1984, President Ronald Reagan made an announcement which changed Christa’s life and brought to fruition a special dream of hers. Reagan announced NASA’s Teacher in Space Project which would choose its first private citizen to fly in space. NASA’s goal was to find a gifted teacher who could communicate with millions of earth-bound students during the course of the mission.
Applications were accepted from December 1, 1984 to February 1, 1985. Christa was one of 11,000 applicants from which 114 nominees were selected. Considering the space mission to be the ultimate field trip, Christa added to her application: “I cannot join the space program and restart my life as an astronaut; but this opportunity to connect my abilities as an educator with my interests in history and space is a unique opportunity to fulfill my early fantasies.” She considered this mission to be an outstanding opportunity to help students gain a better understand of NASA’s operations and space itself.
On July 1, 1985, Christa was named one of 10 finalists and headed for the Johnson Space Center outside Houston, Texas for a week of medical examinations and briefings. Senior NASA officials conducted the evaluations, then reported their recommendations to NASA Administrator James M. Beggs.
July 19, 1985, Christa was selected as the primary candidate for the Teacher in Space Project. Vice President George H. W. Bush made the announcement in a special ceremony at the White House, stating McAuliffe would be the “first private citizen passenger in the history of space flight.” Barbara Morgan, another teacher, was selected as Christa’s backup. NASA official Alan Ladwig stated Christa’s manner set her apart from the other candidates, saying “She had an infectious enthusiasm.” NASA psychiatrist Terrence McGuire referred to Christa as, “. . . the most broad-based, best-balanced person of the 10.” Christa’s instantaneous rapport with the media resulted in the Teacher in Space Program receiving a tremendous amount of popular attention.
Beginning in the autumn of 1985, both Christa and Barbara took a year-long leave of absence from their teaching careers in order to train for the space shuttle mission scheduled for early 1986. (NASA paid the salaries of both women during this time.) Though not an actual member of NASA Astronaut Corps, Christa was part of the STS-51-L crew. Her assigned duties were to teach lessons from space and conduct experiments. Basic science experiments in the fields of hydroponics, magnetism, Newton’s laws and chromatography were on the agenda. She would also conduct two 15-minute classes with the lessons to be broadcast to millions of school children via closed-circuit TV. The lessons, entitled “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, Why,” would include information on the benefits of space travel.
In addition to payload specialist Christa, the STS 51-L crew on board the Orbiter Challenger was composed of the spacecraft commander, F. R. (Dick) Scobee, pilot, Commander M. J. Smith (USN), three mission specialists – Lt. Colonel E. S. Onizuka (USAF), Dr. R. E. McNair, Dr. J. A. Resnik, and another civilian payload specialist, Mr. G. B. Jarvis.
The big day arrived on January 28, 1986. Christa’s friends and family, including her two young children, anxiously waited lift off of Challenger from the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida. Finally, the engines revved up and following the countdown – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 . . . Challenger lifted off. Unfortunately, the flight only lasted 73 seconds as millions of stunned onlookers witnessed the explosion which blew the space craft apart, resulting in the deaths of everyone aboard.
Shortly after the accident, President Reagan took to the airwaves and referred to the crew members as heroes. “This America, which Abraham Lincoln called the last, best hope of man on Earth, was built on heroism and noble sacrifice. It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required and who gave it little thought of worldly reward.”
On July 23, 2004, Christa and the other 13 astronauts who died aboard both Challenger and Columbia were presented the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush. As a tribute to her memory, a planetarium in Concord was named for her. The Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center at Framingham State College was established to support teachers and offer science and mathematics programs. Additional honors were out-of-this-world as Asteroid 3352 McAuliffe and the McAuliffe Crater on the Moon also bear her name.
Christa was survived by her husband and children and laid to rest at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord, New Hampshire. Steven become a federal judge in 1992 and later remarried. Though he keeps out of the media limelight, Steven did express his thanks to the community of Concord, New Hampshire for rallying around his family to protect his children so they could grow up as normally as possible. He now serves as a founding director for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Son Scott completed his graduate studies in marine biology and daughter Caroline followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a teacher after receiving a degree in education. Barbara Morgan, Christa’s back up “Teacher in Space” became the first teacher in space in 2007.
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If I can get some student interested in science, if I can show members of the general public what’s going on up there in the space program, then my job’s been done. Christa McAuliffe