Who Was Christa McAuliffe?

  • Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe

    On January 28, 1986, Christa McAuliffe's mission in space ended in tragedy. However, her message continues to speak to us today.  Christa's motto was, "I touch the future, I teach."  She is teaching us still.


    In 1986, Christa McAuliffe stepped from the classroom into the history books.  As part of a radical new approach by NASA, she was to be the first civilian in space.  While her mission on the shuttle ended tragically, her mission as a teacher continues.


    By 1984, space shuttle flights had become ordinary occurrences to many Americans.  NASA wanted to rekindle the excitement that had once surrounded the space program.  They thought that if an ordinary citizen were involved, a good "talker" who could communicate the excitement of travel in space, the public might once again become enthusiastic.


    Taking this into consideration, President Ronald Reagan made the decision that the first ordinary American to travel on board a space shuttle would be "one of America's finest...a teacher."   After all, good teachers have the ability to get people interested and excited.  NASA's media coordinator said, "We're not looking for Superman; we're looking for the person who can do the best job of describing his or her experiences on the shuttle to the most people on Earth." 


    The search finally led to Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire.  Her students considered her an "inspirational human being, a marvelous teacher who made their lessons come alive."  Often called "The Field Trip Teacher," Christa believed it was the hands-on experience that made the most valuable teaching tool.  In fact, she called her impending trip on the Challenger, "The Ultimate Field Trip."


    Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the eldest of Edward and Grace Corrigan's five children, was born on September 2, 1948, in Framingham, Massachusetts.  While in high school, Christa met Steve McAuliffe. Christa attended Framingham State College, majored in history, and received her degree in 1970.  That year, she and Steve were married.  Soon after, they moved to Washington, D.C., where Steve attended law school.  Christa taught school until the birth of her first child, Scott.  She then attended Bowie State College and earned a masters degree in school administration in 1978.  Shortly thereafter, Steve, Christa, and Scott moved to Concord, New Hampshire, where Christa's second child, Caroline, was born. The McAuliffe family settled into an old, three-story house.  Steve began his law practice, and Christa stayed home with the children.


    Christa's love of teaching soon led her back to the classroom.  First, Christa taught at Bow Memorial School, and then moved to Concord High School.  Christa was also actively involved in the community - church, a tennis club, the local playhouse, the YMCA ,and Concord Hospital.  In addition, she was a Girl Scout leader, a jogger, and a swimmer.


    When the opportunity came to apply to be the "First Teacher in Space," everyone who knew Christa told her to "Go for it!"  She completed the eleven page application, mailed it at the last minute and hoped for the best.  After becoming a finalist, Christa did not think she would be chosen.


    Some of the other teachers were doctors, authors, scholars...she was just an ordinary person.  However, she was chosen, out of 11,500 applicants.  An ordinary person - to whom ordinary people could relate - doing the extraordinary.


    Christa's presence in the space program helped boost public interest and curiosity, and through her participation she also became an inspiration to the teaching profession.  She felt her exposure as the "First Teacher in Space" reflected well on all teachers.  Regarding the space program, she said, "A lot of people thought it was over when we reached the Moon.  They put space on the back burner. But people have a connection with teachers.  Now that a teacher has been selected, they are starting to watch the launches again."


    Christa began her training at NASA's facility in Houston in September of 1985.  At first, she was worried that the other astronauts might think she was just along for the ride.  She wanted to prove she could work just as hard as they could.  When they met, the other members of the crew treated her as part of the team.  Christa trained with them for 114 hours, and when launch time came, she was ready.  Just 73 seconds after lift-off, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard.


    While aboard the shuttle, Christa was to have taught two lessons from space.  In her first lesson she would have introduced each flight member, explained their roles, shown the cockpit with its 1,300 switches and dials, and explained how crew members ate, slept, and exercised in microgravity.


    Her second lesson would have explained how the shuttle flew, discussed why people explore space, and reported on technological advances created by the space program.  Throughout her voyage she was to have kept a journal, inspired by the journals of the pioneer women who left their homes in search of a new frontier.  Christa said, "That's our new frontier out there, and it's everybody's business to know about space."


    Grace Corrigan, Christa's mother, said in her book, A Journal For Christa, "Christa lived.  She never just sat back and existed.  Christa always accomplished everything that she was capable of accomplishing.  She extended her own limitations.  She cared about her fellow human beings.  She did the ordinary, but she did it well and unfailingly."


    Christa's mission continues at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium which was erected in her memory. The idea for a planetarium was suggested by Louise Wiley, a teacher from Northwood, New Hampshire, and was chosen from among many other ideas because it combined Christa's dream of traveling through space with her dedication to teaching.  In April, 1988, the New Hampshire Legislature appropriated funds to build the Planetarium, and groundbreaking took place on October 26, 1988.  Construction was completed in little more than a year.  On June 21, 1990, the Planetarium began its mission to educate, incite, and entertain learners of all ages in the sciences and humanities by actively engaging them in the exploration of astronomy and space science.  Since then, nearly 30,000 school children a year, and thousands of others, have passed through the doors to participate in "The Ultimate Field Trip."


    Written by "The Enrichment Kru"