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Christa McAuliffe tries out the commander's seat on the flight deck of a shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Sept. 13, 1985. Thirty-two years after the Challenger disaster, a pair of teachers-turned-astronauts aboard the International Space Station, Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold, paid tribute to McAuliffe by carrying out her plans for science classes.

We know Christa McAuliffe the astronaut. Who was McAuliffe the person?

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Christa McAuliffe. For those who remember the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, her name is often unforgettable. But who was she really? As a human? As a teacher? 

In the book “The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster,” author Kevin Cook tells of McAuliffe’s earthly feats, including her passion for education, her outspoken activism, and her seemingly unending compassion.

Why We Wrote This

How can a book reclaim a life? “The Burning Blue” broadens the legacy of Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger disaster, by highlighting her roles as educator, advocate, mom, and unapologetic feminist.

She joined the Challenger crew “because she wanted to promote the cause of schoolteachers,” Mr. Cook says. “She felt they were underpaid and overworked, and she wanted to let people know that teachers were really important. That’s what made her give up a year with her family.”

From NASA’s perspective, he adds, “They wanted someone who could make the public care about space again, and she was very good at that.”

Christa McAuliffe may be the best-known teacher in America, but few people know much about her except that she died along with six other crew members in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster. As author Kevin Cook discovered, the New Hampshire educator was an extraordinary woman bursting with warmth and determination. He explores McAuliffe’s role in “The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA’s Challenger Disaster.” Mr. Cook spoke with Monitor recently.

Macmillan

What sparked the idea for the book?

I saw a clip of the Challenger explosion online, and I remembered the name of Christa McAuliffe. All I could tell you was that it was a national disaster, and this teacher was on the flight. I couldn’t name anyone else in the crew. It just seemed like there must be a lot of interesting aspects to that story. She turned out to be this tremendously appealing person, and I was able to tell six life stories about the other remarkable members of the crew. 

Why We Wrote This

How can a book reclaim a life? “The Burning Blue” broadens the legacy of Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger disaster, by highlighting her roles as educator, advocate, mom, and unapologetic feminist.

What kind of person was McAuliffe?

She was a fabulous schoolteacher, just totally dedicated. I was so glad that [her husband] Steve McAuliffe broke his silence [in the book] to answer questions about her and talk about just how devoted she was to her profession. And she was an unapologetic feminist in the early 1980s, when that wasn’t the easiest way to get along in a medium-sized city in New Hampshire. 

You write about the night before she went to Washington for NASA’S naming of the teacher in space. What happened? 

A student shows up on her front porch who’s not in any of McAuliffe’s classes and says she’s suicidal. McAuliffe immediately says “Come on in,” even though Steve, a lawyer, says this may not be a very good idea in terms of liability. She holds the girl’s hand and talks to her until the wee hours of the morning. 

Once the girl has calmed down, she puts her in a bunk bed below her own sleeping son. She gets a couple of hours sleep and goes to Washington to become the teacher in space. This is McAuliffe in a nutshell. Sincere and indomitable.

What sort of challenges did she face in the public spotlight?

She handled the torrent of media attention with grace, and she was nobody’s pawn. She refused to do some things NASA wanted her to do, like promote a teacher’s guide that she had nothing to do with. 

Pamela Marin/Courtesy of Kevin Cook
Kevin Cook is the author of “The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA's Challenger Disaster.”

Why did a Republican White House pick an outspoken liberal for this role?

It wasn’t all about politics. It was about what can you bring to the Teacher in Space program. She was very daunted by the fact that some of the other finalists were brilliant in science and super accomplished. But NASA had enough science. They wanted someone who could make the public care about space again, and she was very good at that. She came across as energetic and enthusiastic. 

Did she understand she was being used as a public relations tool?

I think she did. NASA wanted to promote the space program, and there’s nothing wrong with that. She wanted to promote the space program, too. But what stands out to me is that she had her own cause. It wasn’t her dream to fly or get famous. She did this because she wanted to promote the cause of schoolteachers. She felt they were underpaid and overworked, and she wanted to let people know that teachers were really important. That’s what made her give up a year with her family.

How did McAuliffe come across in public?

A New Hampshire newspaper editor who knew her said she had the gift of being herself on screen. She used to grade papers, late at night, with Johnny Carson’s show in the background. Next thing she knows, she’s on “The Tonight Show” talking with Johnny Carson, and doing it so smoothly that he led a round of applause for her.

Did she realize the danger she faced in the shuttle?

She was constantly asked about whether she was scared. She would always say, “Well, I probably will be when those rockets are going off. Maybe I will be. But you know, right now I’m excited.” She knew there were risks, as they all did. But space shuttle travel was seen as routine. It was often said that they were as safe as flying in a passenger jet, which was absolutely false. But I don’t think it was possible for anyone to understand the degree of the risk until the disaster we all saw on TV.

What should we be thinking as billionaires begin to fly to space?

I am not sure that space tourism is a good idea. They’re using spacecraft that are still experimental vehicles, just as the shuttle was. So there are dangers there. At the same time, people are excited and fired up about space exploration again. One hopes they’ll heed the message of Mike Ciannilli, who runs the Apollo, Challenger, Columbia Lessons Learned Program. He says that as magnificent as the triumphs of the American space program were, there were mistakes. We need to learn from them and not let scheduling and competitive pressures force us to make the wrong decisions.

What are the legacies of the Challenger disaster?

One legacy is how the families of the crew banded together to back the space program – even after their hearts were broken – and built the network of national and international Challenger Centers where kids learn STEM skills in a fun way through virtual space flight. Another legacy is the idea that caution ought to be an important part of our next steps into space exploration. And I hope a third legacy is that teachers ought to be celebrated and compensated better than they are. 

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