Up to the challenge: The legacy of Christa McAuliffe
“I touch the future. I teach.”
— Christa McAuliffe
On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded a little over a minute into its flight. All seven crew members were killed, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire who was on track to become the first private citizen to reach space. McAuliffe’s presence onboard led to heightened media attention, and people across the country tuned in to watch the launch. Viewers witnessed the explosion live.
After the disintegration of the Challenger, the space shuttle program was put on hold for nearly three years, and significant changes were made to NASA and its safety protocols.
McAuliffe wanted to make history by becoming the first private citizen in space and broadcasting science lessons to students from the shuttle. On her NASA application, she wrote, “I watched the Space Age being born [due to the Apollo moon landing] and I want to participate.” She was chosen from the final pool of 10 candidates for her “infectious enthusiasm,” according to NASA.
Students of McAuliffe at Concord High School were fond of her for the same enthusiasm, optimism and ability to make subjects come alive. She was known for her courses that emphasized the impact ordinary people can have on history, noting that they were as important as any king, politician or general.
Although McAuliffe was born in Boston and taught in New Hampshire, her enthusiasm and drive for learning inspired people across the country, including in southwest Brooklyn.
Local middle school I.S. 187 in Dyker Heights was renamed the Christa McAuliffe school shortly after it opened in 1994. McAuliffe’s mother, Grace Corrigan, spoke at the school’s first graduation ceremony in 1997. In her speech, she emphasized her daughter’s zest for life and ability to overcome troubles to follow her dreams. She urged the graduating students to “do the tough things,” and in doing so become heroes in everyday life.
McAuliffe is still inspiring I.S. 187 students today.
Students are encouraged to explore their interests and passions through the school’s three academies for Scientific Research, Humanities and Business and Law. To further connect McAuliffe’s legacy with the school, the yearbook is called “The Challenger” and the slogan is “Reach for the Stars.” Each year there is a student contest to design the back and front cover art — the winners are usually space-themed.
Speaking to the New York Times, McAuliffe said she did not have any female role models because when she was young, “women did not fly in space.” In her ability to inspire her students and push through obstacles to become the first teacher in space, she became a strong female role model for many.
Her legacy lives on through I.S. 187 and its students, as well as several scholarships and education centers. She was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum and was also awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by former President George W. Bush.
As space travel and exploration continue, more people can continue to follow in McAuliffe’s footsteps to “reach for the stars.”
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