There were rows of metal folding chairs in the gymnasium of our elementary school. The little kids were jumping around and excited. I was 12 and in 5th grade and our class much too old and cool for such foolishness, but we were excited too. Teachers shushed us and moved us into our assigned seats and the television was rolled out and turned on for us to watch the countdown.
President Reagan had said the first civilian in space should be a teacher. The search for the perfect teacher went on for months throughout the country. A teacher from our town was even in the running, but she had been beaten out for the honor by Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. We were going to watch the lift off then track the mission, and possibly even watch Mrs. McAuliffe conduct the first lesson from space. What we watched was something very different.
At the command of ignition, the Challenger Space Shuttle rose into the air and we cheered. Then something was wrong. The huge craft began to break up into a huge fire ball. We all sat silent and looked questioningly at our teachers, who looked as shocked as we did. Quickly, they herded the silent kids back into our rooms as the smoke trail still blazed across the television screen. Some people cried. Some people were sure the crew could have escaped. The little ones were just confused. How could this be? Was it like a cartoon and they would jump back up again? Our teachers answered our questions as best they could, but we all knew in our hearts the truth. Mrs. McAuliffe and the other six crew members who flew with her were gone. The kids in Mrs. McAuliffe’s class were watching the liftoff and I can only imagine their horror as the kind woman who taught them disappeared into smoke.
Later it came out that there was a problem with an O ring, and ice and some other technical things that we kids didn’t really understand. All we knew was they were once there and then they were gone. We all went home that night, like kids all across the country, confused and sad. Our parents tried to answer our questions as our teachers had, but there were no easy answers.
I read an article that many of the kids that were watching from Mrs. McAuliffe classes have become teachers and school counselors as well. They are living out her motto- “I touch the future. I teach.” I think she would have been proud.
I’m sure as a fifth grader I did not realize that it was the State of the Union that night, though I was developing a keen sense of politics sharpened by arguments with my classmate, Eric. The two of us had way too much fun sparring with each other and he was probably my first lesson in opposites attract, but that is another story for another time. However, that night was the State of the Union. Instead of his prepared speech, President Reagan gave a tribute to the Challenger crew. It was touching and moving, and all I remember is the end- the haunting closing lines with quotes from poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
“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.’”
Even though I never knew those brave men and women, that’s how I like to remember them. Godspeed and Farewell