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A tribute to Christa McAuliffe

Mon 11th Apr 2022

On a cold, crisp winter morning on 28 January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger crew boarded, ready to etch their names in the history books. None more so than American teacher Christa McAuliffe who was selected out of 11,000 applicants to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space Project. The entire country watched the first teacher to venture into space, only to witness 73 seconds later, the shuttle fall back to earth, sadly with no survivors.

Moments before McAuliffe boarded she said: "...follow your instincts and go for your dreams". Sadly, her dream came at a devastating price, but her legacy today still stands as a reminder of the "incredible impact teachers have on students - and therefore, the future".

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger (from left) Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair and Judy Resnick. Picture: AP Photo/NASA
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger (from left) Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair and Judy Resnick. Picture: AP Photo/NASA

Early Life

Sharon Christa Corrigan was born on 2 September, 1948 in Boston Massachusetts. The eldest of five children, she preferred to go by her middle name early on in life. In her younger years, Christa marvelled at how the space age was evolving and was excited at the prospect that people might actually venture to the moon by bus, saying to a friend "I want to do that!!".

In 1970, she married her high school sweetheart, Steven McAuliffe and moved near Washington DC so he could finish studies. They had two children together, sadly who were only nine and six when she passed away.

McAuliffe began her teaching career in Maryland in 1970 and taught History and Civics until 1978 before moving to Concord, New Hampshire following her husband's new job. Here she continued teaching in areas of American History and English, taking a post at Concord High School in 1983. The New York Times said she "emphasised the impact of ordinary people on history, saying they were as important to the historical record as kings, politicians or generals."

Teacher turned Hero

McAuliffe, having dreamt of space travel since she was a kid, was amazed to hear that her dream might actually be a possibility after President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space Project in 1984. NASA, wanting to increase public interest in the Space Shuttle Program, had a plan to find an ordinary, yet gifted teacher and fly them into space. Their mission - to teach a class from space from a closed circuit TV to more than one million students across the country.

Of the 11,000 applicants, it was announced on 1 July, 1985 that McAuliffe was one of the 10 finalists. A week later she underwent a week of medical examinations and space flight briefings at NASA's Johnson Space Centre. On 19 July, 1985 she was selected for the historic position, which NASA psychiatrist Terrence McGuire said "she was the most broad-based, best-balanced person of the 10."

She took a year of long-service leave to undergo training for the Space Shuttle mission which would commence early 1986.

The fame that followed the first teacher in space saw her appear on many TV programs including Good Morning America, Today Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. When asked about the mission she said, "If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on."

Left to right are Gerard Magilton, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Representative Bill Nelson, Barbara R. Morgan, backup to McAuliffe and Robert J. Cenker. NASA.
Left to right are Gerard Magilton, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Representative Bill Nelson, Barbara R. Morgan, backup to McAuliffe and Robert J. Cenker. NASA.

Her infectious enthusiasm and sparkling spirit made her a huge hit with the media and so the Teacher in Space Project gained a great deal of attention. She had a knack for encouraging people to not only pursue their dreams, but to pursue knowledge and careers in education and space.

After extensive training, McAuliffe finally had earned the right to follow her dreams - in a space shuttle all the way to the stars.

"I always asked my students to go and seek whatever they feel they can do - and reach a little higher."

On 28 January, 1986, the nation watched the live television coverage of McAuliffe and the other 6 person crew on board Challenger.  Tragically, seconds after liftoff, the shuttle exploded. There were no survivors.

The tragic event, coupled with McAuliffe's civilian presence onboard, saw shuttle missions stop for two and a half years, consequently diminishing public support for space programs of this nature.

Christa McAuliffe Gravestone in Concord NH
Christa McAuliffe Gravestone in Concord NH

Legacy

Teacher, wife and mother, Christa McAuliffe has been honoured in many ways since her passing with events, scholarships, grants and schools being named after her. As well as multiple films and documentaries about her life. 

A beloved teacher turned hero, McAuliffe held a special place in so many people's lives. People were drawn to her enthusiasm, her fearlessness in chasing her dreams as well as her caring spirit.

Thank you for your courage and dedication as a teacher Christa McAuliffe, the stars shine a little brighter now you are there. Rest in peace.

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Christa-Corrigan-McAuliffe
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christa_McAuliffe
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LFDFnmvJjk
  • https://www.firstinspires.org/community/inspire/teaching-the-future-christa-mcauliffe-legacy#:~:text=Her%20legacy%20is%20a%20reminder,infectious%20enthusiasm%20and%20pioneering%20spirit.