The Short, Remarkable Life of Christa McAuliffe

Christa McAullife was set to become the first teacher in space before her life was tragically cut short.
Jaime Trosper
McAuliffe undergoing pre-flight trainingNASA/Wikimedia Commons

Sharon Christa McAuliffe, known as Crista by her friends and family, was born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 2, 1948. She dedicated her life to teaching, earning a dual Bachelor's degree in History and Education. This was followed by a Master's degree in Supervision, Education, and Administration. That led her to Concord High School in New Hampshire, where she became a social studies teacher in 1983.

Eventually, her career would lead her to NASA... and to the Challenger mission. 

A legend is born

Christa made history in 1985 when she became the first teacher and civilian to be selected to go to space. She was chosen out of thousands of candidates to join the Teachers in Space Program - an initiative created by President Ronald Reagan.

While not actually an astronaut, she took leave from her teaching job and spent over a year rigorously training to learn how to take on the role of mission specialist and to overcome the challenges presented by living in a zero-gravity environment - effectively making her an astronaut in all but name. 

She - along with 6 others - was to join the crew of the Challenger STS-51-1 mission and conduct a few experiments on board. These experiments were to deal with how liquids behave in microgravity, newton's law, hydroponics, chromatography, and effervescence. She also planned on recording and broadcasting short lessons from the ISS - including a grand tour of the space station, and another touting the benefits of living and traveling in space. These were to be seen by millions of children all across the country.

Challenger Crew
Challenger crew from left to right: (front row) Michael J. SmithDick ScobeeRonald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik. Source: NASA

Of course, there were other objectives for the mission. The shuttle was carrying the second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B), and the Spartan Halley spacecraft. The latter was a small satellite that NASA planned to use to make observations during the upcoming flyby of Halley’s Comet on its closest approach to the Sun. The former would have been primarily used for communication purposes between satellites in space and Earth.

Tragedy strikes

After several delays, on January 28, 1986, Christa and 6 other crew members finally loaded onto the Space Shuttle Challenger. Christa was excited that she would soon be the first civilian to enter the International Space Station. This was Challenger's 10th mission, the previous 9 all went off without a hitch (two made history by taking the first American woman and the first African American into space, Sally Ride and Guion Bluford respectively), but there were signs that all was not well with the shuttle. 

Only 73 seconds into its journey, the shuttle disintegrated into a cloud of smoke in Earth's atmosphere - claiming the lives of all seven people onboard - including Christa. The launch was being shown to millions of people around the world on television, as Christa's charm and good rapport with the media had created an international media firestorm.

Around 17 percent of the US population watched the launch, including children in schools across the country, who watched the launch on live TV via satellite. They all watched helplessly as the shuttle broke apart and blasted smoke and material all over the ocean. It was one of the darkest days in NASA history. If only they knew another shuttle would face the same fate many years later, but that's another story entirely.

The Challenger shuttle explodes
Challenger explosion. Source: NASA

The unseasonably cold weather at Kennedy Space Center had already caused several delays to the launch. On the day of the launch, it was a chilly 2.2°C (36°F), which was almost -9.4°C (15°F) colder than any other previous launch. As the Rogers Commission Report later found, the O-rings, rubber seals on the solid rocket boosters, were prone to degrading and becoming brittle in cold temperatures.

Richard Feynman - a Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist was one of those chosen to serve on the Rogers Commission to find the cause of the disaster. While the other members of the commission poured over documents and spoke with high-level authorities at NASA, Feynman spent some of his time with the engineers who designed the shuttle and he discovered their concerns about the O-rings.

Famously, he demonstrated the fact that the O-rings tend to degrade at cold temperatures by performing an experiment during a news conference, where he submerged a small sample of the O-ring material in a glass of ice water - and then pulled it out and broke it, soundly demonstrated that the O-rings can fail at low temperatures.

It's unknown whether the astronauts died almost instantly, or if they were still alive as the crew cabin made its descent to the ocean floor. There is some evidence that at least one person survived, but it's fairly likely that they all lost consciousness due to the lack of oxygen first. 

The legacy

In remembrance of McAuliffe, in 2018, two teacher-astronauts ventured onto the International Space Station and performed a few of the experiments she had planned to do in space - over 30 years after her death. Of course, her legacy lives on in the forever 37-year-old's two children, and she is still revered by students who remember her fondly. There are also many scholarships and grants bestowed to the less fortunate in her name, which will continue to help keep her memory alive.

Ronald Reagan gave a touching speech the day of the disaster. He said:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'" 

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