30 years after Challenger: Christa McAuliffe's legacy lives on through students

Thirty years after the space shuttle Challenger broke apart following takeoff, killing educator Christa McAuliffe and six astronauts, Ms. McAuliffe's memory lives on through her teaching legacy.

Jim Cole/AP/File
In this 1985 photo, high school teacher Christa McAuliffe rides with her children Caroline (l.) and Scott during a parade down Main Street in Concord, N.H., Jan. 28, 1986.

Three decades after the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated following takeoff, killing all aboard, one of its crew members continues to inspire her former students.

Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher and payload specialist on the Challenger, died along with her six fellow astronauts during the high-profile disaster. Ms. McAuliffe earned her spot on the spacecraft through the Teacher in Space Project, and was to be the first civilian and teacher in space. The aim of the mission was to bring an educator on the Challenger and have them broadcast lessons back to students on Earth while in orbit. McAuliffe was selected for the assignment from a pool of more than 11,000 people.

The Concord High School Class of 1986 watched in horror on Jan. 28, 1986 as the space shuttle broke apart only 73 seconds after launching on live television. McAuliffe was one of the New Hampshire school’s social studies teachers, and many of the students she taught in the 1980s are still affected by her enthusiasm and inspired by her work today.

“As a teacher now, I know that I want to show respect and show my students that I care,” Tammy Hickey, a student in McAuliffe’s law class who now works as an instructor at a Florida junior high school, told the Associated Press.

“I can say to emulate how she was, would be a service to these kids for sure,” Ms. Hickey said.

Another former pupil, Joanne Walton, currently teaches elementary students in Virginia, and says that awareness of the disaster still follows her today.

“I try to be very mindful,” she told AP. “She knew that teaching was way more than just imparting information and that it was really important to know students.”

Holly Merrow, a Maine math teacher who took McAuliffe’s course on American women in history, wants people to remember her motto, “I touch the future. I teach.”

“I hear people use it, and I wonder if they know that it came from her,” Ms. Merrow said to the AP.

And Scott Reynolds, who graduated from Concord High in 1987 and currently teaches at a private college preparatory school in the city, drives his students past McAuliffe's grave site during a field trip for one of his courses. While not every pupil recognizes the significance of the visits, Mr. Reynolds is satisfied that at least one usually does.

"There's always one kid who knows," he told AP. "I can't say I'm depressed. It's 30 years. It's completely understandable that they don't remember this. I'm more enlightened by the fact that there's always somebody who knows who she was."

A petition of the Obama administration “to honor Christa and the other astronauts for their ultimate sacrifice” by naming a holiday after McAuliffe has been supported by members of the Concord Class of ‘86, although it has fallen short of the 100,000 signatures needed for the issuance of a government response.

In Concord, though, McAuliffe’s memory lives on through the naming of its planetarium, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, and through a moment of silence to be held in the high school Thursday alongside assignments related to McAuliffe’s legacy and work.

Aside from the Discovery Center’s name, Concord does not do much to observe McAuliffe out of respect for her family, which remained in the area after the shuttle disaster. In addition to her many students who followed her into the education field, McAuliffe’s children Scott and Caroline are both teachers now as well. Their father, and Christa’s widower, is a federal judge and is satisfied she could inspire so many.

“For us, Challenger will always be an event that occurred just recently,” Steven McAuliffe said in a statement. “Our thoughts and memories of Christa will always be fresh and comforting.

“We are happy to know that Christa's goals have been largely accomplished in that she has inspired generations of classroom teachers and students, and has focused public attention on the critical importance of teachers to our nation's well-being,” he added.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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