'There Had Been a Death in the Family': The Story of Challenger Victim Christa McAuliffe

Christa McAuliffe
Teacher Christa McAuliffe experiences microgravity during a special flight aboard a KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft in this 1986 NASA handout photo. NASA/Handout/Reuters

On the anniversary of the 1986 Challenger disaster, revisit Mike Pride's tribute to teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died in the explosion. This story was originally published in the February 10, 1986, issue of Newsweek.

In the journal I keep, the entry for July 20, 1985, begins: "Yesterday was an incredible day to be editor of the local paper." The day before at the White House, Christa McAuliffe, from my hometown, Concord, New Hampshire, had been named the teacher in space. Near the end of my journal is this quotation from her: "I think the students will say that an ordinary person is contributing to history, and if they can make that connection, they are going to get excited about history and about the future."

Christa made the future—space—an area we covered in the small newspaper I edit. From before that July day until the moment she disappeared in a pink-white puff on the newsroom television screen, we helped her neighbors follow her odyssey. Last week we had a different job. There had been a death in the family, and we groped, with our readers, for what it meant.

Christa made Concord proud. The people in our city saw in her the best that we have to offer. Concord is a family town, and it cares about education. A mother, a wife and a teacher, Christa spoke out for her profession. She was robust and confident; she played volleyball and loved the outdoors. She was a volunteer in a city that seems at times to be run by volunteers. She also taught what Roman Catholics used to call a catechism class. She let no one forget that when she was growing up, teaching was one of the few fields open to women. She was a role model, bringing home the message again and again: If I can do this, think what you can do.

And she became a media darling. In front of a semicircle of TV cameras, she would describe deadpan how the shuttle's toilet worked. The people of Concord, of course, knew that Christa was not performing for the media. The camera didn't lie, and Christa didn't act. This was the real her. Whether she was waving Paul Gile's baton to conduct the Nevers' Band—it dates back to the Civil War—or chatting with her son's hockey teammates at Everett Arena, she was the same vibrant, positive person the rest of America saw on TV.

Crazy About Christa

It is assumed in our society that people who capture the nation, as Christa had, go on to fame and fortune. Those who knew her best knew that Christa had no such intention. She would have used her celebrity to advocate causes she believed in, but she could hardly wait to get back to her classroom at Concord High. She had chosen the profession and chosen Concord, and her selection as teacher in space had done nothing but affirm those choices.

If Christa liked Concord, Concord was crazy about Christa. It made her the grand marshal in a parade. It gave her a day. Her high school sent her off to Houston with a banner that read, "Good luck from the Class of '86...Mrs. McAuliffe.... Have a blast!" A committee made big plans for her homecoming. New Year's Eve, the city featured ice sculptures of rocket ships and stars on the New Hampshire State House lawn.

Bob Hohler, our paper's columnist, became Christa's shadow, sending back dispatches from Washington, Houston and, finally, Cape Canaveral. Her beaming face graced our front page countless times, floating weightless during training, dwarfed by the Challenger before an earlier launch, grinning with her husband, Steve. Her story always seemed too good to be true, and too American. No one is really the girl next door. No one rides in a parade down Main Street on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon. No one equates a modern venture with the pioneers crossing the plains in Conestoga wagons.

In a journal I keep, the entry for January 28, 1986, begins: "What a tragic day for Concord." Tears have flowed in my city for days—long, wearying days. Words have flowed, too, in verse, in letters to the editor, on radio talk shows.

Intense and Personal

All the media people who have interviewed me and others at the newspaper want to know how it feels here. Our pain is more intense and personal, I tell them, but we know we are not alone; nearly everyone I know was consoled by a call from someone. Ordinary people, the kind McAuliffe's mission had intended to reach, have called from out of the blue. One man in Alberta, Canada, told me that his family felt terrible and needed to speak with someone here because if they felt that bad, we must feel much worse.

I thought at first that Christa's death would be hardest on the children. They had learned all about the shuttle, and in an age without heroes, they had found one in her. Most had witnessed the dreadful moment. Yet times like these remind us that children are resilient. Age robs us of the instinct to go forward without a backward glance. I even suspect now that we have tried too hard to make our children feel what we want them to feel. It is the adults in Concord who still have swollen eyes and stricken looks. They comprehend what was lost, and what was lost was a part of them. It is not a myth to say that everyone in town knew Christa. She was easy to meet, easy to talk to. Even those who never had the chance felt as though they had.

Since we picked up Christa McAuliffe's trail, our town has traversed from the green, fertile days of midsummer to the cold heart of winter. The subtle daily changes of nature have played tricks on us; sometimes, at this time of year, it can seem as if summer might never come again.

Many people have compared Christa's death with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the inspiration of her youth. There are differences, but for the people of Concord—even for the nation as a whole—the comparison is valid. She stood for what was best in us at a time when we wanted to believe that the American spirit was reborn. That makes her death hard.

'There Had Been a Death in the Family': The Story of Challenger Victim Christa McAuliffe | U.S.