Christa McAuliffe: A Tribute

By Catherine Gong
March 2012

Mr. Zuniga’s music appreciation class was usually boring but not today. Instead of listening to some opera from the nineteenth century, all of us were going to watch the space shuttle Challenger launch and we were all excited. A big television on a cart was rolled right in front of the chalkboard and our seats were perfectly arranged so that even the shortest person in class, like me, could see.

It was January 28, 1986.

A few minutes before the launch, Mr. Zuniga told us that a woman named Christa McAuliffe was on the Challenger space shuttle and that she was not only an astronaut but was also going to become the first teacher in space. Mr. Zuniga also said that McAuliffe planned to conduct experiments in space but more importantly she planned to give students a tour of the Challenger from space. I wasn’t too interested in soil samples or Newton’s laws. Instead, I was imagining a woman with outstretched arms and legs suspended in a white, sanitized environment where she would be opening a can of tuna to make a sandwich. I daydreamed a little more and envisioned a weightless jar of mayonnaise and Tang floating around her head; and I even imagined a football being tossed in the air by her and another astronaut. Live footage would record these common activities and everyday objects in orbit, and these images would be televised from millions of miles away and beamed into our own televisions at home. Then the teacher would come back from space and she’d tell us in class how something as ordinary as making a sandwich and would be extraordinary in space. Across the whole nation, she’d travel from school to school telling kids like us that eating and playing catch in the Challenger felt funny but neat.

But McAuliffe never came back. In less than ninety seconds the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated. Only a white plume in the shape of a wayward corkscrew appeared on our screen.

Later that evening President Ronald Reagan gave the entire country his condolences. Reagan expressed our nation’s loss of the Challenger crew and of the teacher, Christa McAuliffe who epitomized NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, “There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.” (1).

McAuliffe never got to tell us what it felt like to be in space but in her short lifetime she taught American history, law, economics, and The American Woman, a class she designed herself. (2). McAuliffe taught traditional subjects but also educated students about women who made historical contributions to America. Intentional or not, McAuliffe was as innovative as the women she introduced to her students. For McAuliffe, a classroom could be a room with four walls but could also be the upper limits of space and NASA’s Teacher in Space Project made her quest possible. McAuliffe said, “. . . 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.” (3)

McAuliffe’s dream of teaching students from space seemed to capture both NASA’s mission and Reagan’s vision. In 1984 Reagan “. . . announced plans for a permanent human presence in space. . . and he tasked NASA to. . . be a part of a project designed for the benefit of everyone on Earth.” (4). McAuliffe’s life carried out this message and she did it with love. According to Reagan, McAuliffe like the other crew members “. . . had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy.” (1). I don’t think McAuliffe ever set out to be the first teacher or the first female teacher in space. More importantly, McAuliffe committed her life to showing the world and its children that anything is possible on this planet and beyond. President Reagan seemed to understand that Christa McAuliffe embodied this pioneering spirit and was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice like the others, “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored 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 their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” (1).

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