Christa McAuliffe: NASA's First Teacher in Space

McAuliffe and space shuttle model.
Christa McAuliffe, NASA's first teacher in space. She died in the space shuttle Challenger accident on January 28, 1986. Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe was America's first teacher in space candidate, chosen to fly aboard the shuttle and teach lessons to children on Earth. Unfortunately, her flight ended in tragedy when the Challenger orbiter was destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff. She left behind a legacy of education facilities called the Challenger Centers, with one located in her home state of New Hampshire. McAuliffe was born September 2, 1948 to Edward and Grace Corrigan, and grew up being very excited about the space program. Years later, on her Teacher In Space Program application, she wrote, "I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate."

While attending Marian High School in Framingham, MA, Christa met and fell in love with Steve McAuliffe. After graduation, she attended Framingham State College, majored in history, and received her degree in 1970. That same year, she and Steve were married.

They moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where Steve attended Georgetown Law School. Christa took a teaching job, specializing in American history and social studies until the birth of their son, Scott. She  attended Bowie State University, earning a masters degree in school administration in 1978.

They next moved to Concord, NH, when Steve accepted a job as an assistant to the state attorney general. Christa had a daughter, Caroline and stayed home to raise her and Scott while looking for work. Eventually, she took a job with Bow Memorial School, then later with Concord High School. 

Becoming the Teacher in Space

In 1984, when she learned about NASA's efforts to locate an educator to fly on the space shuttle, everyone who knew Christa told her to go for it. She mailed her completed application at the last minute, and doubted her chances of success. Even after becoming a finalist, she did not expect to be chosen. Some of the other teachers were doctors, authors, scholars. She felt she was just an ordinary person. When her name was chosen, out of 11,500 applicants in the summer of 1984, she was shocked, but ecstatic. She was going to make history as the first school teacher in space.

Christa headed to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to begin her training in September 1985. She feared the other astronauts would consider her an intruder, just “along for the ride,” and vowed to work hard to prove herself. Instead, she discovered that the other crew members treated her as part of the team. She trained with them in preparation for a 1986 mission.

She said, “A lot of people thought it was over when we reached the Moon (on Apollo 11). They put space on the back burner. But people have a connection with teachers. Now that a teacher has been selected, they are starting to watch the launches again.”

Lesson Plans for a Special Mission

Besides teaching a set of special science lessons from the shuttle, Christa was planning to keep a journal of her adventure. “That's our new frontier out there, and it's everybody's business to know about space," she noted. 

Christa was scheduled to fly aboard the space shuttle Challenger for mission STS-51L. After several delays, it finally launched January 28, 1986 at 11:38:00 a.m. EST.

Seventy three seconds into the flight, the Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard as their families watched from the Kennedy Space Center. It was not the first NASA space flight tragedy, but it was the first watched around the world. McAuliffe died, along with astronauts Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Michael J. Smith.

While it has been many years since the incident, people have not forgotten McAuliffe and her teammates. Astronauts Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold, who are part of the astronaut corps for the International Space Station, announced plans to use the lessons onboard the station during their mission. The plans cover experiments in liquids, effervescence, chromatography and Newton's laws. It brings fitting closure to a mission that ended so abruptly in 1986. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

Sharon Christa McAuliffe was killed along with the entire crew; mission commander Francis R. Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; and payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis. Christa McAuliffe was also listed as a payload specialist.

The cause of the Challenger explosion was later determined to be the failure of an o-ring due to extreme cold temperatures. However, the real problems may have had more to do with politics than engineering.

After the tragedy, the families of the Challenger crew banded together to help form the Challenger Organization, which provides resources for students, teachers, and parents for educational purposes. Included in these resources are 42 Learning Centers in 26 states, Canada, and the UK which offer a two-room simulator, consisting of a space station, complete with communications, medical, life, and computer science equipment, and a mission control room patterned after NASA's Johnson Space Center and a space lab ready for exploration.

Also, there have been many schools and other facilities around the country named after these heroes, including the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, NH.

Part of Christa McAuliffe’s mission aboard the Challenger was to have taught two lessons from space. One would have introduced the crew, explained their functions, describing much of the equipment aboard, and telling how life is lived aboard a space shuttle. The second lesson would have concentrated more on spaceflight itself, how it works, why it’s done, etc.

She never got to teach those lessons. However, even though her flight, and her life were cut so cruelly short, her message lives on. Her motto was "I touch the future, I teach." Thanks to her legacy, and that of her fellow crew members, others will continue to reach for the stars.

Christa McAuliffe is buried in a Concord cemetery, on a hillside not far from the planetarium built in her honor.