January 1986. It’s kind of like November 1963 or December 1941 or September 2001. The Challenger explosion was a news event that not only overwhelmed people with its impact but created a lasting impression and inspired the inevitable “Where were you?” question. Those of us who remember that day 25 years ago will never forget the time and place we heard about this terrible moment in the collective memory of our nation.
I was a seventh grade teacher in a Catholic school in Queens, NY. Although I taught English classes, I spoke about the Challenger blastoff with my students in the weeks before the launch. Besides the obvious applications to science and math connected to such an event, I found there was an extremely tangible literary element to space travel. Had not space voyages been the subject of stories and poems? Each time I watched a craft takeoff, I felt awash in the lyrical countdown that was poetic as it was methodical.
There was also another connection I had to the Challenger: I had submitted an application to the Teacher in Space Program that would eventually land Christa McAuliffe in the Challenger on January 28, 1986. I recall it was a long application, filled out a couple of years before when I was a rookie teacher. Although I figured I didn’t stand a chance against all the scientific types that probably would be chosen, I still sent it in because I believed in taking every opportunity. Besides, if I were selected, it would fulfill all my boyhood Captain Kirk dreams to – if not boldly go where no man had gone before – be floating around in the velvet black of space and looking down at the hazy blue marble Earth.
Of course, I was not selected and I never told my students about it. I had told my family and I remember my Mom thinking I was crazy. “Who would want to do a thing like that?” she asked. Well, I wanted to do it because it would be the stuff of all the tales I had ever read and all the TV shows and films I had seen about space travel. I would write about it and maybe even star in a television show later on – something like Teacher in Space.
We all know that many educators applied for this opportunity of a lifetime, but in the end Christa McAuliffe was chosen as the teacher who would go on the voyage. Though I envied her at first, I grew to accept not going and also to embrace the fact that one of my own would be making this fantastic voyage. It was a source of great pride for all us earthbound teachers, for we saw the adulation and respect that people everywhere had, not just for Christa, but for teachers in general now that she had become so famous.
So on that fateful day I was teaching a lesson about transitive and intransitive verbs. I probably sighed a little bit, glanced at my watch, and thought about Christa taking off for the heavens while I was stuck with my feet firmly planted on the ground teaching something most of my students found boring. In those days we didn’t have televisions in every classroom, but I knew one of the science teachers had signed out the only one we had on a rolling cart on our floor. She and her class were watching the liftoff down the hall. My students worked on a few examples in their notebooks and the serene quiet was suddenly broken by a kind of crying and moaning that floated through the doorway, a sort of crush of recognition that something horrible happened.
In a few moments the principal’s stoic voice came over the classroom intercom announcing, “The Challenger Space Shuttle has exploded on takeoff. Please pray for those on board and their families and friends.” Once she stopped speaking, I heard my students gasping, some staring out the window as if they thought they’d see falling pieces of the ship coming down from the sky.
What do you say in moments like this? Sometimes silence is the best thing, and I just sat on the edge of my desk and stared at them as they buzzed their conversations and cried tears. I waited for a time and then one of the girls (who had been following Christa’s journey diligently and had written about it in her journal) looked up at me and asked the question I had no answer for: “Mr. Lana, why did this happen?”
Twenty-five years have passed and I still don’t have the answer. At the time I think I stammered a bit, fighting my own tears, and said something about God’s plan and Christa’s bravery. I honestly don’t remember what I said anymore, and I’m not sure if it brought any comfort to my students. I do know that nothing brought any comfort to me: not that day or a long time afterwards.
I remember staring at the cold winter sky that night so long ago, staring up at the constellation Orion so bold and bright in the dark night sky. I thought how I had submitted that application and wanted to really go, but so did so many others. Christa went for all of us, all the teachers who worked so hard everyday, who loved their jobs and their students as much as anything in life. That kind of dedication and spirit sent Christa McAuliffe up in that Space Shuttle, and not even the explosion that took her life could destroy the power of the example she set for teachers and students in America and all over the world.
So tonight I looked up at the sky again, but I couldn’t see Orion or anything else because there was a cloudy sky, ready to drop more snow on us. Still, I could see the trail that she blazed that day, and though she’s gone her memory remains and her name will forever linger in the firmament, inspiring us now and forevermore with her bold desire to reach for the stars.
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