Dateline – Tuesday, 28 January 1986. 11:35 a.m.
I’m upstairs in my bedroom, cramming the last of my new textbooks in my bag, grabbing a few extra pens and my journal, and checking my look in the mirror: clean-shaven, every single hair gelled in place, and wearing a white oxford with a blue Hugo Boss cardigan sweater. I smile at myself, fighting the need to wear a jacket in the cold January weather. I am beginning my second semester of junior year: an English major with an education minor. This semester feels just the opposite, though, as I am taking classes like Principles of Secondary Education and Teaching Reading in the Secondary Classroom. I am so happy to be immersed in my major courses as I try to look like the teacher I can’t wait to be.
I rush downstairs just in time to catch the liftoff of the most important space launch of my lifetime. Teacher Christa McCauliffe, designated a payload specialist, has joined the flight team of commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik; and a second payload specialist, Greg Jarvis.
At 11:37 a.m., I look at my Mickey Mouse watch. I don’t have to be on campus until 1 p.m., but parking will be a challenge, as usual, so I will need to head out as soon as the space shuttle disappears from the camera’s eye and is swallowed by space.
Dad is in his chair to the left of the television, as he always is when he’s not at the firehouse. I am so thankful that this is his last year before he retires. He hasn’t looked himself lately.
At 11:38 a.m. I sit on the edge of the couch and watch the liftoff, a brilliant burst of light and fire propelling this team of seven into the skies. The energy that it takes, I think, to lift such a machine into the heavens, just so that it can carry on its mission in weightlessness.
Three seconds into ignition, the Public Affairs Officer announces on NASA TV: “Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”
I have been following Christa McCauliffe’s story for months, where her energy to teach mingles with the lessons I am learning in my courses at Towson. While others are lifting superheroes or movie stars as their idols, I am lifting this 37-year-old teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who is paving a path for all of us in what it means to teach, what it means to “touch the future.”
Twenty-eight seconds, pilot Mike Smith says: “There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five.”
I watch the bright light arc right, bend to the heavens, on the ultimate teaching mission. I can’t help but see and feel the parallels in my own life. This time next year, I think, I will be in the classroom as a student teacher, realizing a dream to work with others since I was in high school. From my days in elementary classrooms through my senior year, I had the best role models to show me what teaching was all about: Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney; then Crouse, Falcone, and DeVita. They had been human, loving, nurturing, guiding in those first 12 years of school. There, as I watch McAuliffe climb higher and higher in the shuttle, piercing the blue and leaving behind a single stream of white, I feel the immediate urge to teach stir within me. This is going to be the best semester yet.
Sixty-eight seconds, CAPCOM, or the Capsule Communicator, says: “Challenger, go at throttle up.”
Dad and I are silent. We are captured by the beauty of the launch on this clear blue Tuesday morning as we watch Challenger roll right.
Seventy seconds, Commander Dick Scobee replies: “Roger, go at throttle up.”
We watch as CNN zooms into the Shuttle. I feel so close to it on the television. We are with the crew of seven, we are flying with teacher Christa McCauliffe for the most magnificent teachable moments imaginable.
Then, at seventy-three seconds, that single stream of white explodes, and two rocket boosters fly to the left and right, leaving a chalice of smoke in the silence of the broadcast.
Thirty-one seconds after the explosion, a somber voice from the Command Center says: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”
The silence between my father and me changes, shifts from the incredible to the incredulous. We are unsure what has happened, as CNN channels through its camera shots from white-lined skies to crowds of shocked onlookers, some of them Christa’s family. They are holding on to each other. They are holding on to hope.
I look at my watch and the time has somehow slipped away. Minutes have ticked away like seconds, and it is already after 12 p.m. I have to leave. Head to school. Learn what I can to be a good teacher.
But what I realize on the drive to Towson is that what I need to learn to Touch The Future is already in me, thanks to the Christa McCauliffes who have shown me what it means to hold such responsibility, such opportunity to empower others to embrace learning, to let them know that there are no limits to how far they can go.
Seventy-three seconds crystallized that for me for those 30 years that would follow. I vowed then, at 20 years old, to always remember what Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney, DeVita, Crouse, Falcone, and now McCauliffe had taught me: no matter the challenges we might face, never lose the energy to empower the young, never abandon the belief in the individual futures that breathe life into our classrooms.
Seventy-three seconds made me who I am today. Though my cardigan might now be a little worn, I will always carry with me the energy of my mentors and Christa McAuliffe’s words, “I touch the future; I teach.”
2 thoughts on “Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years”
Christa McAuliffe was buoyed by the thousands of young minds who dreamed of the adventure of discovery. Her fuel and motivation stemmed from the human desire for exploration into the unknown. How fortunate we all are to lead others to new insights and greater understanding. We honor her each time we recognize and pursue our own quest for knowledge. We serve mankind when we do so to others.
Thank you, Russ, for this eloquent tribute and for the work you do every day expanding horizons.
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Thank you, Jane. Your words are truly inspiring.