Thirty years ago on January 28, New Hampshire social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe boarded the Challenger Space Shuttle. It was a historic moment. NASA had selected McAuliffe, 37, to be the “First Teacher in Space,” and McAuliffe, a civilian, instantly became the pride of the New England area and a nationwide celebrity. Just 73 seconds after launch, tragedy struck when the Challenger suddenly exploded, killing McAuliffe and six other astronauts. The disaster occurred as cable news channels carried the fatal launch live on television. On the ground at the Kennedy Space Center, confusion reigned as onlookers were unsure of what to make of the fireball they saw erupt in the sky above them. McAuliffe’s best friend Anne Donovan Malavich, who was standing beside McAuliffe’s parents when the shuttle exploded, recalled the uncertainty and, ultimately, horror of that day when she realized what had occurred. “I don’t think anyone in the stands viewing their first launch knew what happened,” Malavich told Boston.com. “After the explosion, I jumped down to find my husband. He was with people who had been to many launches. And I said, ‘Wasn’t that awesome?’ He took me by the shoulder and said, ‘The vehicle exploded.’ I looked at him and said ‘That’s not funny.’ And he said ‘No, she’s gone.’” McAuliffe left behind a husband, Steve, and two young children — Scott, 8 at the time, and Caroline, 5 at the time. Scott’s entire third-grade class had traveled to Florida to watch the launch.
Three decades later, McAuliffe’s legacy endures. Many students in the class of 1986 in Concord went on to pursue careers in education after they grew up, some as teachers and guidance counselors, CBS News reports. Tammy Hickey credits McAuliffe with inspiring her to become a teacher, and she didn’t even like social studies as a kid. But she did enjoy McAuliffe’s law class. Hickey, who now works as a physical education teacher at a junior high school in Florida, remembered McAuliffe’s kindness and affability with students.
“As a teacher now, I know that I want to show respect and show my students that I care,” Hickey says. “I can say to emulate how she was would be a service to these kids for sure.”
Another of McAuliffe’s pupils, Joanne Walton, who teaches fourth grade in Virginia, echoed that sentiment. “She knew that teaching was way more than just imparting information and that it was really important to know students,” Walton remarked, adding that, while in the classroom, often asks herself “What would Christa do?”
On YouTube, NASA offered up a short video on this “Day of Remembrance” honoring McAuliffe and all of the other crew members who have died in pursuit of space exploration. Watch it below.