Christa McAuliffe

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Christa McAuliffe

Teacher Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986) was the first private citizen to be included in a space mission. She died in a fiery explosion mere seconds after the launch of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986.

Christa McAuliffe was a teacher, an "ordinary" person by her own estimation, and it was a paradigm of ordinary people that she impressed on her students; she taught that history is a result of ordinary people living their lives in their own times. In her eagerness to be the first civilian in outer space she resolved to keep a record of her journey for posterity, the journal of an "everyday teacher" in space. The Challenger spacecraft on which McAuliffe was to ride was a well-maintained member of the U.S. shuttle fleet, having made several previous trips into orbit around the earth. In 120 days of training and preparation for her flight, McAuliffe learned to cope with every foreseeable disaster—save one: the event of an explosion aboard the shuttle within 74 seconds of liftoff, even before the shuttle's solid rocket boosters consumed their two million pounds of auxiliary fuel.

An Ordinary Life

McAuliffe was born Sharon Christa Corrigan on September 2, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents, Edward and Grace Corrigan, raised their five children in Framingham, Massachusetts. McAuliffe's father was an accountant and her mother a substitute teacher. McAuliffe was always known as Christa. She was the oldest of the Corrigan siblings, and was responsible and emotionally mature, even as a child. She joined the Brownies and later the Girl Scouts of America. She loved the outdoors, spent summers at Camp Wabasso in New Hampshire, and liked to ski and play softball. Music was important to McAuliffe. She studied piano and performed in student musicals at Marian High School in Framingham.

It was also at Marian High School that she met her future husband, Steven James McAuliffe. After graduation in 1966 she enrolled at Framingham State College while Steven McAuliffe attended the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. At Framingham State, McAuliffe majored in history. She sang in the glee club and was elected twice to be the captain of the debate team. She graduated from Framingham in 1970 with tentative plans for a career in social service. That same year on August 23 she married Steven McAuliffe and went to live in Maryland.

After the move, McAuliffe accepted a teaching position at Benjamin Foulois Junior High School in Morningside, Maryland where she taught American history to eighth grade students. Between 1971 until 1978 she taught eighth and ninth grade history, English, and civics at Thomas Johnson Junior High School in the town of Lanham. She was by then committed to her career as a teacher and enrolled in graduate courses at Bowie State College in Bowie, Maryland. She earned a master's degree in education in 1978. In her thesis McAuliffe discussed the acceptance of the handicapped child in a regular classroom by his peers. Her husband, during those years, attended law school and was employed as a defense lawyer for the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps before entering private practice in 1975.

The McAuliffe's son, Scott, was born on September 1, 1976. Two years later the young family moved to Concord, New Hampshire in order for Steven to work as an assistant district attorney for the State of New Hampshire. In Concord, on August 24, 1979, their daughter, Caroline, was born. The following year, in 1980, McAuliffe resumed teaching. She began at Rundlett Junior High School in Concord and later transferred to Bow Memorial School in Bow, New Hampshire where she taught ninth-grade English from 1981 until 1982.

McAuliffe's generous contributions to community activities included serving as resident of the Bow teacher's union, teaching Christian doctrine to children at her parish church, and campaigning for a local hospital and for the YWCA. She joined the Junior Service League, participated in "A Better Chance" a program for inner city students, and was a Girl Scout troop leader. When she taught at Concord High School, beginning in 1982, she authored and taught a course entitled, "The American Women."

Teacher in Space Program

McAuliffe was teaching at Concord High School in November 1984 when Vice-President George Bush announced the "Teacher in Space Project" to the people of the United States. By February 1, 1985, McAuliffe had filed an application explaining her interest in the space program. Charlene W. Billings quoted her recollection in Christa McAuliffe: Pioneer Space Teacher, "the excitement in my home when the first satellites were launched. I was caught up with their wonder. I cannot join the space program and restart my life as an astronaut, but I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate."

The initial selection process reduced the applicant pool to 114 teachers. McAuliffe survived the cut and went to Washington, D.C. to proceed with the selection process before the National Review Panel. The diverse panel included former astronauts, NASA officials, educators, politicians, executives, professional athletes, two actors, a physicist, and others. The panel selected ten finalists from among the 114 applicants. The candidates endured days of intensive medical, physical, and psychological examinations and persistent briefings followed by final interviews with a panel of seven senior NASA officials. As quoted by Billings, McAuliffe told members of the panel: "I've always been concerned that ordinary people have not been given their place in history. I would like to humanize the space age by giving the perspective of a non-astronaut. Space is the future. As teachers we prepare the students for the future. We have to include it, space is for everyone." McAuliffe promised to share her adventure by means of a meticulously kept diary that she would record in space.

In a unanimous decision the seven-member NASA Space Flight Participant Evaluation Committee awarded the assignment of "first teacher in space" to Christa McAuliffe. She received a keepsake award at a formal announcement ceremony on July 19, 1985 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

McAuliffe returned to Concord on August 6, 1985, and the city observed "Christa McAuliffe Day" in her honor. She received commendations from her town and from the state of New Hampshire. The National Education Association (NEA) honored McAuliffe as well.

Astronaut Training

In late summer of 1985, McAuliffe left New Hampshire for the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. On September 9 she embarked on an intensive training program to prepare for NASA Mission 51-L, her journey into space. During that mission shuttle astronauts would deploy the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-2 (TDRS-2), a communications satellite. They would also deploy and retrieve a machine called the Spartan-Halley carrier to study ultraviolet light from the tail of Halley's Comet.

Throughout her 120 days of astronaut training, McAuliffe shared the experience with the American public through mainstream media outlets. She received briefings and learned to read flight data and to operate certain cockpit controls. She practiced proper procedures for entering and exiting the space shuttle and learned to operate the ship's on-board cameras. She trained on a KC-135 training jet that simulated weightlessness for the astronauts. Other simulators depicted the appearance of space and the feeling of extra gravity pull on liftoff. McAuliffe's emergency training included fire fighting, and the use of a "rescue ball," to be used like a space suit in the event of an in-orbit rescue from the shuttle. McAuliffe learned to operate galley equipment, and even how to accomplish bathroom operations in outer space. Her flight apparel included shirts, shorts, underwear, socks, slipper socks, flight boots, gloves, pants, a jacket, coveralls, and a personal hygiene kit. Her supply kit contained a watch, flashlight, pressurized pens, pencils, sunglasses, scissors, a pocketknife, earplugs, and a mask for sleeping. She learned to operate a sleep restraint harness to prevent drifting about the cabin when resting. McAuliffe selected her own meals from an assortment of space food. For entertainment she brought six tape cassettes and a tape player. McAuliffe learned how to capture clear, sharp, detailed photographs from space with a personal camera. Like tourists everywhere, she planned to return with souvenir pictures of her trip.

As the first teacher in space, McAuliffe prepared two in-flight lessons about outer space: "The Ultimate Field Trip" and "Where We've Been, Where We're Going, Why," to be broadcast live from the orbiting space shuttle to U.S. school-children. Included among the shuttle cargo were three experiments prepared and donated by U.S. schoolchildren. There was an experiment to observe the effects of outer space on developing chicken embryos, another to study crystal growth, and a third to study grain formation and metal strength in a weightless environment. McAuliffe would also monitor an experiment in hydroponics (growing plants using only liquid nutrients, without soil).

A crew of six would board the shuttle along with McAuliffe for Mission 51-L: Commander Francis "Dick" Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, engineer Judith Resnick, physicist Ronald E. McNair, aerospace engineer Ellison S. Onizuka, and engineer Gregory B. Jarvis. Several days prior to launch, the crew, including McAuliffe, entered quarantine to minimize the danger of infectious disease on-board the shuttle. Weather and other problems caused repeated rescheduling of the original launch date of January 22, 1986. NASA pushed the date back to January 25, and then to January 26. On the morning of January 27 the astronauts entered the shuttle hatch approximately two hours before the scheduled lift-off. They buckled into their seats, but ten minutes prior to lift-off the countdown was delayed for mechanical repairs. Four hours later, with repairs completed, the weather changed and the flight was postponed for the fourth time. The astronauts returned to quarantine.


On January 28, 1986 the Challenger was prepared for launch from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. The temperature that day hovered at 27 degrees Fahrenheit. McAuliffe and Jarvis, payload specialists, were in the mid-deck of the tri-level crew-module along with mission specialist Onizuka. The pilot and navigators were assigned to the upper flight deck, while the bottom deck served as an equipment bay. The shuttle's external fuel tank, 153 feet long by 27 feet wide, carried over one million pounds of fuel. The tank would separate when empty, as would the tanks of the twin solid rocket boosters, each nearly as large as the fuel tank and designed to burn out within three minutes after launch. The tiles on the outside of the Challenger could withstand heat of 2,300 to 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Mission 51-L would have been the tenth voyage into space for the 122-foot Challenger, but the catastrophic flight lasted a mere 74 seconds. At 11:39 a.m. the fuel tanks exploded, much of the spacecraft disintegrated, and all aboard perished. Helpless, horrified onlookers watched as the shuttle carrying seven astronauts fizzled like a flare and fell into the sea.

Some weeks later a NASA search crew located the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger on the ocean floor. Christa McAuliffe's remains were returned to New Hampshire and buried near her home on May 1, 1986.

McAuliffe and the other crewmembers each had carried cherished keepsakes on board the Challenger's final mission. McAuliffe brought with her a class ring belonging to Steve McAuliffe, a necklace belonging to her daughter, a stuffed frog from her son, a pennant from Concord High School, a photograph of her high school class, and a personal T-shirt that read, "I touch the future. I teach."

Further Reading

Billings, Charlene W., Christa McAuliffe: Pioneer Space Teacher, Enslow Publishers, 1986.

Hohler, Robert T., I Touch the Future: the Story of Christa McAuliffe, Random House, 1986. □

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Christa McAuliffe

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