Home > Art, Life, Maybe there IS a God... > Christa McAuliffe’s Death Reminds Me of What It Means To Live

Christa McAuliffe’s Death Reminds Me of What It Means To Live

The temperature was 90 degrees in the bright pink hotel room I was living in outside of Keene, New Hampshire that winter. Something had gone wrong with the thermostat and I couldn’t shut off the heat. Outside, the temperature was well below freezing and dark sky was ablaze with stars.

The images on the TV screen were many of the same ones I’d been clipping out of newspapers and magazines for months leading up to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The seven astronauts had become bigger than life because for the first time one of them was a civilian.

Christa McAuliffe, who had been chosen as the first representative of the Teacher in Space Program, was the instructor everyone would have wanted. She reminded me of my 4th grade teacher who knew how to keep me on track but was the first to appreciate all that I was, not just what I could do academically. Like me, Christa was also from New Hampshire, so I felt extra pride in her designation as the first teacher in space. As I struggled to regain my footing after dropping out of college where I was studying to become a teacher myself, she made me want to reconsider my decision to quit.

I had never paid much attention to the shuttle launches before this one. For the first time, I was really engaged in the space program. I’d read everything I could find out about it. It seemed the whole nation was captivated just as they’d been when man first landed on the moon.

Finally, the day of the launch came — January 28, 1986. Sitting at my desk at the Brattleboro (VT) Area Chamber of Commerce, where I was working for just enough money to cover my commute back and forth from the motel I lived in for $90.00 a week in Keene, this was my first real job. My co-worker and I listened to live coverage on the tiny radio behind my head, and Larry Smith, the local DJ covering the event, sounded as excited as we were. He rattled off the play by play and I looked forward to being able to watch it all on TV later that night.

Larry began echoing the countdown of the announcer at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and my co-worker and I joined in. “10 – 9 – 8…..”


We clapped and cheered and threw all our little bottles of white-out in the air.

But before we could finish retrieving the bottles, something went terribly wrong with the launch. Just over a minute into the shuttle’s flight, Larry reported that an explosion had sent smoke and gases and parts of the booster rockets in different directions far up in the sky.

My blood froze. It was too soon for the rockets to disengage! For hours, commentators speculated about what had happened and held out hope that the capsule containing the astronauts had somehow escaped undamaged though we knew there was no way. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to admit they had all perished so we prayed for a miracle.

That night as I viewed the coverage in my motel room, I felt like my guts would explode out of my body as I watched over and over again the inner workings of the shuttle assembly shatter violently when a later-identified frozen O-ring in one of the booster rockets allowed gases to escape and blow up the rocket engine. The images of the explosion showed trails of exhaust veering off and close-up photos strained to see if any of the falling pieces could be the fuselage of the shuttle itself, or, God forbid, any of the astronauts, flung from the orbiter at some 50,000 feet above the ocean.

There I stood, alone in the icy draft of the wide open window, sobbing my brains out. Nothing had ever crushed my spirit like this. For days afterward I watched the coverage as the scientists exhaustively pored over what went wrong. When it was agreed that none of the astronauts could have survived the event, President Reagan delivered a moving eulogy whose last line remains with me to this day:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

In an age when our “heroes” tend to be people who get paid lots of money to exploit a certain innate ability, I think back to that time when a TEACHER was our hero. Somewhere over these 25 years, we seem to have forgotten that our best teachers aren’t the ones that urge the highest test scores out of us. They aren’t the ones concerned about what facts we can regurgitate for the sake of a rating. They are the people among us whose greatest mission in life is to help us build the kind of character that makes us heroic in the eyes of our communities, even if our greatest accomplishments are unknown beyond the walls of our own homes.

If the explosion of the Challenger taught us anything, perhaps it is that catastrophic failure is not a reason to stop trying. I believe that if Christa McAuliffe had survived that tragedy, she would have returned to her classroom and with the help of her students, figured out what could be done differently next time to make the mission successful.

And if the memories of how she made me feel at that low point in my life have any meaning, maybe it is the realization that we are all teachers…

  1. Ted
    January 28, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    Ellen, As usual, very well said. I was at sea in the Navy and they aired the launch on AFARTS. I was just getting off my watch and heading for the berthing compartment when one of the relieving machinist mates was dashing down the passageway late for his watch, told me the news, just outside of the chow hall. When I reached the berthing compartment, I watched the footage being replayed. I had that same feeling you described, in my gut. For several weeks before the launch, Mom had sent me news clippings of all the hoopla surrounding the main event, so I was up to date with what was going to be a spectacular shuttle launch. Sadness and disbelief was present all around aboard the USS Saratoga. It was truly one of the most moving events of our time as was the shooting of President Regan, and then of course, 9-11.

  2. Mama Nance
    January 28, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for the reminder Ellen. Reminds me of the shuttle tragedy AND how wonderful teachers are. Hard to believe that something like this ever happened when today it’s so routine. Now if we can shore up the school system like we have the shuttle program we’ll be doing Christa and crew a much deserved service.

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