The Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986 killing all seven crew members. I was in high school, watching the launch on a cheesy television that I’d helped roll into my French class. I can still see it sitting on a rickety black cart, antenna adjusted just-so in order to get a decent picture as Sister Yvette turned up the volume so we could all hear the countdown. And I can still remember her whispering words of prayer as the image of the shuttle was replaced by twisting plumes of smoke.
In the wake of the tragedy, my school mourned the loss of the entire Challenger crew, but was struck particularly hard by the loss of Christa McAuliffe. She was a teacher in Concord, New Hampshire just north of where I lived and she had become a daily fixture on the local news. Every night we saw clips and images of this woman who was “just” a teacher getting the chance of a lifetime. Christa had even been scheduled to speak at our graduation that year and had become a hero to the girls at my small private school. If a teacher from our little state could fly on the shuttle, we thought, just imagine what we could do someday.
The Challenger disaster became a pivotal moment in the lives of not just my classmates, but in the lives of countless young men and women who watched the launch in classrooms around the world. It instilled in them a determination to create some kind of meaning beyond the tears and the heartache. Christa took a huge risk when she chose to take that seat on the shuttle. She did something that many thought she couldn’t do, or shouldn’t do, and that many would never even try to do. But she did. She took the risk. She tried. Although she never got the chance to conduct the lessons from space she had planned, she still reached millions of children. I can’t count the number of people who, in the twenty-five years since her death, have told me they pursued careers in science and engineering because they were inspired by Christa. The mission she started has never really ended.
You can now find the name Christa McAuliffe on schools, plaques, museums, and even a planetarium. As wonderful as all those memorials are, the best memorials are the ones we carry in our hearts. The ones that keep us striving to achieve that which we think is impossible.
“If I can get some student interested in science, if I can show members of the general public what’s going on up there in the space program, then my job’s been done.” -Christa McAuliffe