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Christa's Lessons Continue



"If you want to be brave
And reach for the top of the sky
And the farthest point on the horizon
Do you know who you'll meet there
Great soldiers and seafarers,
Artists and dreamers
Who need to be close, close to the light..."
-- "Touched By The Sun," by Carly Simon.

I never met her, but she is one of my role models. Today, twenty-two years after the Challenger disaster, I remember Christa McAuliffe.

She caught my imagination and secured my admiration in so many ways -- as a woman, teacher, feminist, activist, Democrat, member of the community. She had qualities I want to have: courage, determination, spirit, joie de vivre. I worry about trying new things, about meeting new people, about failing. Christa, in contrast, glowed with enthusiasm for each new opportunity. "She lives life -- she's not afraid of it," noted the principal where she taught last.

The weekend I got married, NASA chose Christa to be the first schoolteacher to travel in space. She had beat out more than 11,000 teachers for the job. As a high-school social studies teacher from Concord, N.H., she wanted to be the first "ordinary person" to fly in space. But as NASA realized, Christa McAuliffe was anything but ordinary.

Christa was the kind of teacher I wish every kid had -- she was excited about what she taught, made it real and understandable with anecdotes and field trips, and truly cared about her students. Her subjects were American history, law, economics, and a course she designed called "The American Woman," which looked at pioneer women's journals as part of the social history of everyday people; the course is still taught at Concord High. It was a way for her to turn the spotlight on women who, not being military figures or politicians, had been left out of many accounts of history. For her economics class, she taught how local construction projects impact the city. Her law classes visited the courthouse. She taught about the assembly-line process by recalling how she used to package Twinkies on the assembly line. A student commented later, "I just laughed so hard, but I'm not going to forget it."

She would drive a student to school and have kids come for dinner. Once, a suicidal girl came to her house, and she let the girl stay over. Christa recalled, "Steve warned me that I had no authority to counsel her and there might be legal implications. 'So sue me,' I told him."

As president of a teachers' union, she fought for fair salaries. Despite teachers' wages starting at less than $10,000, the school board and budget committee turned down a pay increase. Christa didn't give up, moving the fight to a town meeting. Townspeople gave a thumbs-up to more pay. "My sympathies," she said, "have always been for working-class people."

It was important for her to give back to the community, and she did that and then some. She was a Girl Scout troop leader, receptionist at a family planning clinic, and Sunday School teacher. And she also found time somehow for jogging, tennis, volleyball and acting.

She didn't spend time worrying about what others thought. Wearing a strapless gown to a high-school prom raised eyebrows at a Catholic school in 1966, but she did it anyway. When her boyfriend wasn't available for a school dance, Christa took her father. She married her high school sweetheart. She wanted to travel in space back when there were no women in the space program. When NASA tried to script the lessons she would teach from the shuttle, Christa refused.

Her first lesson, in keeping with her reputation as the Concord High field-trip queen, was "The Ultimate Field Trip," a look at daily life in space. The second, Where We've Been, Where We're Going and Why?, would center on the history and prospects of space exploration. And, inspired by the pioneer women whose journals Christa taught, she planned to document her own flight in a journal, which would start with her selection, cover the actual flight, and her thoughts after her return.

When I was in grade school, she was graduating from college half an hour away. After she was selected as Teacher In Space, I couldn't help feeling an almost "hometown" connection with her that has lingered in the years since. For all I knew, I passed her any number of times at Shoppers World. I knew that world and grew up in it, too. "If Christa can do it," I would tell myself, "so can I."

"Reach for it. Push yourself as far as you can," she urged her students.

Many of her students did that, going on to follow in her footsteps as a teacher. "She always told us to reach for the stars, to not give up on your dreams," said one student. "Her legacy to her students? It's to wake up and see how fun your education can be."

One student became an astronaut, responsible for improving the solid rocket boosters which killed Christa, age 37, and the six other crew members on the Challenger, in a Y-shaped cloud of smoke 73 seconds after takeoff on January 28, 1986.

Last summer, I was driving through Massachusetts to have dinner with friends on the afternoon that Barbara Morgan, Christa's backup in 1986, blasted off on the shuttle Endeavor. As I passed road signs for Concord, N.H., I listened on the car radio to every moment of the launch, hoping Barbara and the crew would have a safe launch and Christa's mission would, finally, continue.

It did. Not long after, I read with joy that Barbara and her fellow astronauts had answered, from the International Space Station, questions from Idaho schoolchildren. I found some wonderful YouTube footage of her demonstrating exercise in space -- by lifting the two large men floating alongside her. The crew showed weightlessness by throwing a baseball in space, juggling ping-pong balls, and eating in space, with great shots of an astronaut chasing a slowly floating spoon with liquid on it that looked like shaky Jell-O.

Barbara Morgan told the kids that getting into orbit takes some getting used to; even though she kept her head upright for a whole day, she felt like she was upside down the whole time! And when an astronaut set aside an item, even a Velcro one, within 30 seconds it was gone, so the astronaut had to go on what she called "treasure hunts."

This was the kind of lesson Christa would have loved to teach. One YouTube user clearly agreed, crowing, "Mission accomplished!"

Christa's husband, Steven, penned her epitaph: "Wife. Mother. Teacher. Pioneer Woman. Crew member, Space Shuttle Challenger. America's first ordinary citizen to venture toward space. She helped people. She laughed. She loved and is loved. She appreciated the world's natural beauty. She was curious and sought to learn who we are and what the universe is about. She relied on her own judgment and moral courage to do right. She cared about the suffering of her fellow man. She tried to protect our spaceship Earth. She taught her children to do the same."

Her motto was, "I touch the future -- I teach." Her lessons continue.

[Note: My sources were: "A Journal For Christa: Christa McAuliffe, Teacher in Space," by Grace George Corrigan (Christa's mother); "I Touch the Future," by Robert T. Hohler; "CNN Presents The Christa McAuliffe Story" (in four parts on YouTube); excerpts on YouTube from "Christa McAuliffe: Reach For the Stars" documentary; Barbara Morgan ISS footage on YouTube; and newspaper coverage from the Boston Globe and Concord (N.H.) Monitor.]

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