You would have expected the end of January to be cold in the Northeast, and I was not disappointed on Tuesday, January 28, 1986. I would be traveling that day over to the Albany, New York area on the clear, but blustery morning.
I had made good time coming across Route 9 in Southern Vermont, traveling over what they call Hogback Mountain into Bennington. I had stopped at one of my favorite spots at the top of the mountain to grab a quick cup of coffee and enjoy the southerly view over the Green Mountains of Vermont and onto the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts.
My plan was to grab lunch at Ted’s Fish Fry on Route 7, where the roadway would start its slow descent into Troy. It was a hole in the wall spot that the locals favored, and it was a favorite of mine when going over into the Albany area for meetings.
I really wanted to be at Ted’s around 11:30 AM so I could watch the launch of STS-51L from its perch on launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was a great day for all of us from New Hampshire, as a young woman had won the right to represent teachers from a field of 11,000 other applicants. Her name was Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher from my hometown in Concord, New Hampshire.
She would be sitting beside the other six crew members that day; Francis Dick Scobee the Commander on this mission, Mission Pilot Mike Smith, Judith Resnick/Mission Specialist, Ronald McNair/Mission Specialist, Ellison Onizuka/Mission Specialist and Greg Jarvis/Payload Specialist.
All these brave individuals, along with Christa McAuliffe would be about to embark on a journey only few have been fortunate enough to experience.
Christa carried with her scientific experiments from children that would be done aboard the Shuttle Challenger while circling the globe. That teaching experience would be broadcasted live, back into classrooms around the world; the first lessons by a teacher in space.
My brother Bill, who was employed in sales at the local Sears store, had arranged for several televisions to be delivered and set up so the students could witness the event as if they were there.
The voyage aboard Challenger was a wonderful undertaking that would take Christa an entire year to train for, and she carried with her the respect and love of teachers from throughout the profession she cherished so much.
Steven McAuliffe, Christa’s husband would be there for the launch, along with their two children, eight-year-old Scott and five-year-old Caroline, in addition to Christa’s parents Grace and Ed Corrigan. They were all there for the launch as were scores of other relatives, friends and children from her school.
In addition to them, the VIP stands at the Space Center were packed with family and friends of the other six crew members. They would watch the Challenger Shuttle lift off from the pad, as it had nine other times before. This time however, it would be different. Seventy-three seconds into what seemed to be a normal launch, millions of people around the world watched in horror and disbelief as their worst fears soon turned into reality.
I had met Christa and her husband Steven shortly after they had moved to Concord in early 1982. Steve had accepted a position with the State Attorney General’s Office as an Assistant AG. I was so pleased when I had heard of her remarkable opportunity to be chosen to be a role model for so many others. Her enthusiasm, energy and commitment to excellence was contagious.
I sat at Ted’s Fish Fry with my eyes riveted onto the small TV screen and watched as so many others did that day, proud to have known someone that would make such a wondrous journey. It was a day that began with such high hopes and great expectations; however, it was a day that would end in sadness and disbelief. A day which would shake the American Space Program to its core and leave us questioning its worth.
I would cancel my meetings that day and just checked into my hotel and stayed focused on the events surrounding the catastrophe we had all witnessed due to the digital age. My drive back to Concord the next day would be consumed with so many sad thoughts.
As the months after the heartbreak of the Challenger disaster would pass, I found great pride in the community I grew up in, and how they came together to protect the privacy of her family, allowing them to grieve in private and attempt to make sense of the tragedy that had befallen them.
Even today, as I travel on occasion back to Concord, I will visit the graves of my own family which are in the cemetery that Christa was also laid to rest in. Her spot there overlooks the meandering Merrimack River as it winds its way through the community that she loved and would call home.
Sharon Christa McAuliffe reached for the stars, and even within this tragedy, came a lesson she passed onto her family, friends and students. She led by example, showing us that you must reach for your dreams. That you must pursue them with great energy and have the courage to believe in yourself and in those dreams.
President Reagan’s words are probably some of the most profound spoken as he reflected on the tragedy of that day. “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us today by the way they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”
I hope today, in the deepest parts of my soul, that future generations will not forget or dismiss the courage of those seven brave individuals who dared to reach for the stars. That they will not be known just for the tragedy that had befallen them, but for the courage, call to duty and love of country that they shared.