from educational Horizons Summer 1993

Late Night Thoughts on the Death of Christa McAuliffe

©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.

edited 8/17/11

The "ultimate field trip" begins 11:38 A.M. on January 28, 1986. With a thunderous roar that shakes the earth, the space shuttle Challenger rises majestically from Launch Pad 39B. Strapped to the back of a huge external fuel tank and giant booster rockets that burn ten tons of fuel a second, the Orbiter looks toy-like amidst the smoke and flame.

Moments after lift-off Challenger's on-board computers execute their programming and the enormous assemblage rolls onto its back. The Orbiter now hangs vulnerably beneath the roaring rocket boosters and external fuel tank that is as large as a World War II blimp. In the crew cabin, five men and two women feel themselves being inverted, but that feeling is muted by the tremendous G - force that is shoving them back into their seats as Challenger begins accelerating to a planned 17,000 miles per hour..

The feelings are familiar to Commander Dick Scobee and Mission Specialists Judy Resnik, Ron McNair and Ellison Onizuka. They have flown the shuttle before. Two others, Pilot Mike Smith and Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis are new to space flight; but are very familiar with launch pad operations. Only Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe is a novice.

At 19,000 feet Challenger reaches Mach I, and the rocket boosters throttle back in anticipation of the maximum aerodynamic stress generated when Challenger breaks the sonic barrier. For fourteen long seconds the space craft is buffeted, first by powerful sonic shock waves then high altitude winds; but she breaks free of the turbulence and her engines resume full power. Seventy seconds after lift-off the shuttle reaches 50,000 feet. She is right on schedule.

The crew members begin to relax. But, unknown to anyone, intense pre-launch cold coupled with faulty design has caused a crucial O-ring to fail in the right booster rocket. Now a small fiery leak is growing progressively larger, burning its way into Challenger's enormous fuel tank. Suddenly a catastrophic explosion tears Challenger apart. The sealed crew cabin is blasted loose from the rest of Challenger and propelled upward another 15,000 feet. Then, for an agonizing two minutes and forty five seconds the crew cabin tumbles to earth. The blast does not incapacitate all of the crew members. Recovered gauges indicated most of the emergency air supply has been consumed. So at least some of the crew are alive when the crew cabin slams into the water at 207 miles per hour killing everyone on board.

Ordinarily the death of Challenger's professional crew members, while tragic, would have been acceptable in light of the fact that they all chose very risky careers. No test pilot expects to be a good insurance risk. But the investigation which followed the catastrophe clearly indicates that NASA officials compromised the safety of the crew unnecessarily; and that makes their death another matter. But the element of this tragedy that has special poignancy for me is the death of Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe. I still cannot think about that with anything but angry melancholy. To me her fate is pure tragic metaphor.

Let's begin with why Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher and mother of two, was the "first citizen passenger" scheduled to go into space. Superficially, the presence of a teacher was to signify America's high regard for teaching and schooling. And what was the teacher's actual mission in space? Ostensibly too televise "lessons" on days four and five of " the ultimate field trip.".

Unknown to Christa McAuliffe, however, the real mission was aiding President Reagan's reelection. A teacher in Challenger was the cheapest way of making the incumbent President look like a supporter of teachers and schooling even though he had set out to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and was making drastic cuts in the Federal education budget.

In 1984 when the decision was made to launch a Teacher-in-Space, the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign was already underway. Reagan-Bush was known to be vulnerable to Mondale-Ferraro on several issues. One of the most important was education. Mondale effectively highlighted Reagan's "second-rate leadership" that produced "an appalling record" of "educational neglect." His campaign issued a "report card" on Reagan educational policy that gave the President "F's" in everything but dramatics and sports.

Shortly after Mondale launched this offensive a Gallup Poll revealed that a large majority of Americans thought Mondale more likely than President Reagan to improve public schooling. This pro Mondale trend concerned Reagan campaign officials. They felt the President needed to recapture at least some of the "education vote?" To do so they planned a limited counter offensive. It was launched on August 27, 1984. While speaking at a District of Columbia junior high school, the President first announced several new members of his Advisory Council on Education. That was a warm-up. Then he proudly told the world who America's first passenger in space would be. "Today" the President said" I'm directing NASA to begin a search in all of our elementary and secondary schools and choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America's finest -- a teacher. One year later Christa McCauliffe was selected from over 11,000 applicants.

NASA's professional astronauts were uncomfortable with political passengers such as Christa McAuliffe. Astronaut Judy Resnick, who was to perish with McCauliffe, once privately asked a friend, "What are we going to do with these people?" But it turned out that Christa McAuliffe was not a problem like some previous passengers had been. (One reportedly had to be restrained prior to lift-off.) She was very professional in her commitment and trained hard for the mission.

But how well she trained was not what really mattered. What mattered was how her presence, and her National Education Association membership (the NEA had endorsed Mondale), could be exploited by the Reagan White House

In fairness, White House staffers had scant reason to think their political agenda would kill Christa McAuliffe. They knew space flight was risky; but NASA was famous for its "fail safe" flight standards. What White House officials did not know, however, was that the same motivation that led key NASA officials to accept blatant political orchestration of crew assignments had also caused them to make fatally wrong decisions concerning Challenger's launch. In fact, one reason for NASA officials going ahead on January 28th in spite of dangerously cold temperatures and ice build up on the launch structure was to get the space craft in orbit in time for the President's State of the Union Message that very evening.

"When the shuttle lifts off," President Reagan said as he announced the Teacher-In-Space project, "all of America will be reminded of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation. I can't think of a better lesson for our children and our country." But when the shuttle exploded, I was reminded of the short shrift teachers and education have often gotten in the life of our nation. Had Christa McAulliffe died in a a genuine effort to highlight the importance of teaching and schooling it would have been different. But the whole Teacher-in-Space effort was just bad faith public relations -- eyewash for an administration that had gotten itself into political hot water by giving nothing but empty platitudes and slashed federal budgets to teachers for four long years.

The death of Christa McCauliff is a metaphor for all the phony pronouncements of lofty schooling goals that no one takes seriously. The death of Christa McCauliff is a metaphor for every conscientious teacher in the inner cities who must "teach" in overcrowded, understaffed, dilapidated buildings destabilized by violence. The death of Christa McCauliff is a metaphor for every conscientious teacher working without resources who is piously told that he or she could, if they only tried, do better. Yes, for me, the death of Christa McCauliff is a metaphor; and I can't think of a sadder lesson for our children and our country.