Christa McAuliffe Biography

Educator(1948–1986)
High school teacher Christa McAuliffe was the first American civilian selected to go into space. She died in the explosion of the space shuttle 'Challenger' in 1986.

Synopsis

Christa McAuliffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 2, 1948. A high school teacher, she made history when she became the first American civilian selected to go into space in 1985. On January 28, 1986, McAuliffe boarded the Challenger space shuttle in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The shuttle exploded shortly after lift-off, killing everyone on board.

Early Life

Born Sharon Christa Corrigan on September 2, 1948, in Boston, Massachusetts, Christa McAuliffe was the first of five children born to Edward and Grace Corrigan. When she was 5, she and her family moved to Framingham, Massachusetts. An adventurous child, McAuliffe grew up in a quiet, suburban neighborhood during the space age. 

McAuliffe graduated from Marian High School in 1966 and enrolled at Framingham State College, where she studied American history and education. She received a bachelor's degree in 1970, and married Steven McAuliffe soon after. The couple had met and fallen in love during their high school days.

Around this time, McAuliffe began her career as an educator, teaching American history and English to junior high school students in Maryland. In 1976, she and Steven welcomed a son, Scott. After earning a master's degree in education from Bowie State College in 1978, McAuliffe and her family moved to New Hampshire. She landed a teaching job at a high school in Concord, and gave birth to a second child, Caroline.

In 1981, when the first space shuttle circled the earth, McAuliffe made sure her students took note. Three years later, President Ronald Reagan and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced a bold new program, the Teacher in Space Project.

Selected for Space Mission

McAuliffe was an extraordinary teacher with a dream of being a passenger on the space shuttle, so when NASA announced a contest to take a teacher into space, she jumped at the chance and applied. McAuliffe won the contest, beating out more than 11,000 other applicants. Vice President George H.W. Bush delivered the good news at a special ceremony at the White House, stating that McAuliffe was going to be the "first private citizen passenger in the history of space flight."

After NASA announced the selection of McAuliffe, her whole community rallied behind her, treating her as a hometown hero when she returned from the White House. As for McAuliffe, she saw the space mission as a chance to go on the ultimate field trip. She believed that by participating in the mission she could help students better understand space and how NASA works.

One of the more difficult aspects of the program was leaving her family for extensive training. She headed to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in September 1985, returning only for the holidays. More than any other year, 1986 was to be the year of the space shuttle, with 15 flights scheduled. McAuliff's mission, STS-51L, was to be the first to depart for space. 

The shuttle was originally scheduled for lift-off on January 22, but there were multiple delays. The first one was a routine scheduling delay. The second was because of a dust storm at an emergency landing site. The third delay was because of inclement weather at the launch site. One final delay was due to a technical problem with a door latch mechanism.

'Challenger' Tragedy

On January 28, 1986, McAuliffe's friends and family, including her two children, anxiously watched and waited for the Challenger space shuttle to take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Her students in Concord also tuned in with the rest of the country to watch the history-making space expedition. However, less than two minutes after lift-off, the shuttle exploded, and everyone aboard died.

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. 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.' " - Ronald Reagan, January 28, 1986

A shocked nation mourned the passing of the seven crew members of the Challenger. President Ronald Reagan spoke of the crew as heroes shortly after the accident: "This America, which Abraham Lincoln called the last, best hope of man on Earth, was built on heroism and noble sacrifice," he stated. "It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required and who gave it little thought of worldly reward."

NASA spent months analyzing the incident, later determining that problems with the right solid rocket booster had been the primary cause of the disaster. The findings revealed a gasket had failed on the rocket booster, the cold had affected the O-rings and a leak caused fuel to ignite.

Lasting Legacy

After her death, this courageous educator received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. As a tribute to her memory, a planetarium in Concord was named after her, as well as an asteroid and a crater on the moon. In addition, the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center at Framingham State College was established to carry on her legacy and support advancement of educational practices throughout the region.

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