It was a day Americans will never forget. Children sat in their classrooms across the country, eyes glued to the TV screen as they watched schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe join astronauts on the space shuttle Challenger. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the oldest daughter of five kids from Framingham, Massachusetts — a teacher who loved science and couldn’t wait to return to her students and share her experience.
McAuliffe — and more than 11,000 other teachers — applied to become the first teacher in space through NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. She had packed science projects to take with her for this amazing opportunity. But just 73 seconds after liftoff on Monday, January 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded.
The sky above Cape Canaveral was full of flames, smoke, and pieces of the space shuttle. The accident killed McAuliffe, along with Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, and Dick Scobee.
The Challenger’s mission, designated STS-51-L, was the space shuttle’s 10th flight. It failed due to a malfunction with a booster engine. Some blame weather conditions, as it was the lowest temperature ever recorded for a space shuttle launch that day, at 20 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Yahoo. Allegedly, ice formed on the engine’s joints, a circumstance which led to the horrific explosion.
On the anniversary of their passing, people everywhere are remembering those who sacrificed their lives in the hopes of furthering science and space exploration. McAuliffe is being remembered by her high school friends, who recalled how she played basketball and softball, and acted in Junior League plays. Her college pals from Framingham State reminisce about their fun times together.
Her former classmates, her family, and others have been capturing what a wonderful person she was — including her husband Steve, who happened to be her high school sweetheart. McAuliffe’s mom, Grace Corrigan, told Yankee Magazine in 2011 that she intended to keep her daughter’s memory alive for as long as she could. She passed away at the age of 94 in November of 2018, according to the Milford Daily News.
“If you remember at that time, teachers had a bum rap, and she was trying to make everyone know they were important,” Corrigan said. “I tell [everyone] that Christa was a teacher. That was the most important job for her. When she came back, she was going to go back to teaching. This was the thrill of a lifetime for her, but she felt it was going to focus on education and that it would get the kids excited.”
During that interview with Yankee Magazine, the reporter accompanied Corrigan to the Challenger Learning Center at Framingham State University, McAuliffe’s alma mater. The director at the time, Mary Liscombe, happened to be McAuliffe’s college classmate. She told the reporter that she felt McAuliffe was “on my shoulder every day.”
“She guides me through the center, shows me how students work together in a simulation, landing on Mars and returning to Earth,” she said.
One particular paper McAuliffe wrote as a Marian High School student decades ago carries a sentimental sentence with it — one that others still cling to today as they remember her vibrant life, her dedication to teaching and to children, and a life lost too soon.
“Ordinary people are the ones who make history and do extraordinary things,” Christa McAuliffe wrote.
Today, more than 40 schools are named after McAuliffe as a way of memorializing her and her contributions to education. Her own words of, “Be yourself, try your best, and never be afraid to dream” serve as the mantra for McAuliffe Middle School in Los Alamitos, California. Wonderful words to live by.