Remembering Christa McAuliffe, The Challenger Crew 35 Years Later

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CONCORD, NH — For those of us who attended Concord High School during the 1980s and had Christa McAuliffe, one of the members of the Challenger crew that perished 35 years ago today, as a teacher, this time of the year can sometimes be difficult.

But not unlike other tragic events in modern history that Americans have witnessed, there is often an addition of optimism and hope in the middle of the horror.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, an incredible loss of life, it was amazing how many people were able to come together to help others, as the first responders and other New Yorkers did before and after the buildings came down; watching firefighters and others rush from all over the country to assist in the salvage operations.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of Concord NH Patch's 30th-anniversary Challenger disaster column.

Our leaders during World War II made it a mission to defeat the national socialists and their allies who were slaughtering millions of people on both sides of the world after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Four years later, countless young American lives had been lost but the enemies were defeated.

The Challenger disaster also marked its generation, as tens of thousands of American schoolchildren watched the first teacher in space and other astronauts perish on live television on a cold January morning in Florida.

But out of that tragedy, came hope and action: Many students became teachers; grant programs and countless schools have been named to honor Christa, forever memorializing our teacher; documentaries have been created; a local planetarium here in Concord that also honors Alan Shepard, another New Hampshire astronaut, was built, etc. There was even a movement underway to make Jan. 28, a national holiday, organized by graduates of Concord High School.

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Netflix released a documentary in 2020 — "The Final Flight," which featured new interviews, video footage, and also a comprehensive look at fatal flaws with the shuttle program and what seemed like quite a coverup, in hindsight, with a lot of still unanswered questions.

"Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars," by Renee Sotile and Mary Jo Godges, released in 2005, was another great documentary that focused on Christa and the program.

Renee Sotile, me, and Mary Jo Godges at WKXL in Concord after an interview concerning their documentary, "Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars," 2006.

In the early 1980s, Christa was one of my social studies teachers and an advisor of the school’s World Affairs Club, an active group of students who met, learned, and talked about the troubled global times (I was president of the club in 1983). She taught economics, women's studies, and other classes.

Members of the World Affairs Club, with Christa, at Concord High School from the 1983 school yearbook. Note the typo of her last name in the cutline ... oh that crazy yearbook staff.

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Living in the era of the Cold War, while fearful, was not like it is today — while there may or may not have been “reds under your beds,” the threat of a nuclear attack and mutual assured destruction was real. The main foreign enemy of our time was not unseen like it is today — attacking at will, enslaving women and children, blowing up people randomly in restaurants and rock concerts, beheading journalists, including New Hampshire resident James Foley, etc. And how the world has changed so much in 35 years.

Four of the WAC members (including me) won speaking awards at Model UNs held at Kearsarge Regional High School in 1982 and 1983. At one point in the debates of the 1983 Model UN, I was "kidnapped," due to comments from the floor of the General Assembly (an amusing de-platforming, of sorts, decades before what is going on in social media today).

WACs members went on to intern and work for Senators and other pols, became educators, and even ran for public office themselves. Some are still here in Concord while others live all around the United States and even the world. We would not have become who we are today if it were not for Christa's influence and that of another teacher and club advisor, George Morrison.

As time has passed, the fact that so many schoolchildren do not even know about the Challenger disaster is a bit stunning — it was not unlike the second jet flying into the World Trade Center, for many of us.

On that day in 1986, admittedly, I did not see the explosion live on television like thousands of children. I was crashed, having been out late the night before at a concert: The Butthole Surfers at Danceteria in New York City — a notorious, legendary evening where frontman Gibby Haynes lit a huge cymbal full of gasoline on fire and dove from the stage, tackling a woman who was the roommate of another woman I was hanging out with at the time (in thinking about it now, it is surprising we all got out alive, actually). A phone call woke us all up that day and we watched the footage, in horror, repeat, over and over again.

While thousands may not have died like on 9/11, it moved us the same way.

The marquee, outside of Concord High School, in January 2016.

At the same time, on Jan. 28, 2021, some may have forgotten.

Even though it was the 35th anniversary today, there appears to be no memorial service at Concord High School.

Principal Mike Reardon did not return an email from Wednesday about whether or not there would be a public service. The stars and stripes were not even lowered to honor Christa. There was not even a note on the school's marquee either like there was in 2016.

Outside of Concord High School on Jan. 28, 2021.

This is saddening especially since the new attention given to the Challenger explosion via the Netflix documentary as well as a coin honoring Christa the U.S. Mint is creating — pre-orders go on sale at noon on Thursday, according to an alert sent out this morning.

While it is understandable, given the current coronavirus pandemic, and all of the chaos of the mix of hybrid and remote learning in the city, at the same time, the date should have been acknowledged.

Some Granite Staters though have not forgotten.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen issued a statement Wednesday night and an update on the coin's creation last month, too.

"We lost Christa 35 years ago, but her legacy lives on today in the students and teachers she inspired to follow in her footsteps, especially young women, to become leaders in science, mathematics and innovation," Shaheen said. "The Challenger tragedy was a day every Granite Stater remembers, and my thoughts are with her family, friends, former students and colleagues and all of the Concord community. While Christa did not make it to outer space, she completed the mission she lived by: 'I touch the future. I teach.' Her story and impact on all Americans endures more than three decades since her passing, and I have no doubt that in New Hampshire and across the country, generations of students will know who Christa McAuliffe was and what she stood for.”

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center planetarium, a great place if you have not visited, also posted a statement on Facebook.

Today we Remember the Crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger who were lost 35 years ago. We work to carry on their memory...
Posted by McAuliffe-Shepard" class="redactor-linkify-object">https://www.facebook.com/MSDis... Discovery Center on Thursday, January 28, 2021

This date and time, for our community, is not one to forget but a time to remember and give thanks to a teacher and her colleagues who took chances and risks to try something different — not unlike many others have done since the dawn of mankind.

Thank you, Christa, for that, and thank you to Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Gregory Jarvis, and your families, for inspiring us all.

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This article originally appeared on the Concord Patch