Friday, January 28, 2011

Space Shuttle Challenger - My Personal Involvement

The Geneabloggers community often takes time to share our personal reflections on national events that had an impact in our lives. On this 25th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle tragedy, I have very personal recollections. . .

The launch of the Challenger space shuttle with teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe was an event I had been anticipating for more than a year. I was actively involved in the process used to select the teacher who would eventually go on the space mission.

As part of my job at the state education department in Nebraska, I was the coordinator of the state's Teacher of the Year program and oversaw the work of the committee that selected the Nebraska Teacher of the Year. When the NASA Teacher in Space project was announced, I was tapped to head the selection process in Nebraska and my statewide committee of distinguished educators and community members would be embarking on our own mission with the hopes that a Nebraska teacher would be the first teacher-astronaut.

We received the blank application forms and distributed them to the practicing teachers who were interested in applying to be the NASA Teacher in Space. It was a very short application form compared to what my committee usually reviewed for the Teacher of the Year. I think the applications were only about two pages long. In that brief amount of space, the applicants had to share information about their experience, but more importantly, why we should chose them to be the Teacher in Space.

Selecting a private citizen to train as a astronaut was big news. The day the program was first announced, I was interviewed by the local media. I tried to sound as coherent as possible but I was uncomfortable speaking on television with the shiny braces that were recently placed on my crooked teeth.

I don't recall how many applications were submitted, but there were a lot. Over the coming months, the committee narrowed down its selection to a field of seven fantastic Nebraska teachers, any one of whom would have done a wonderful job. The task we had been assigned from the national Teacher in Space project was to have two nominees to represent the state of Nebraska.

We played the publicity card right down to the wire. I scheduled a press conference that would announce the two Nebraska finalists on the day that the selection committee interviewed the finalists in person. This was a scheduling nightmare as we had to keep the interviews on schedule, have enough time for the committee to deliberate and make its selection in time for the Commissioner of Education to make the announcement at the press conference. To say that everyone's adrenalin was running high that day would be an understatement.

Our seven finalists posed for photographs and it was easy to make the connection to the seven original Mercury astronauts I remembered from my childhood. Press from the Omaha and Lincoln television stations were on hand, as were print and radio media. The Commissioner made the announcement. The two teachers selected to represent Nebraska were Jim Schaffer of Lincoln and Roger Rea of Omaha.

Jim and Roger went to Washington DC in the next step in the selection process. I recall that Jim had gone to Florida for the launch, but it was delayed and he returned to Lincoln. I think I had an invitation to witness the launch, but since it would have been on my own time and dime, I didn't make plans to go. I think that the postcard Jim sent me from Florida is still in my desk drawer.

Launch day finally arrived. Television sets were on throughout the education department. We saw this terrible tragedy play out before our eyes. After realizing what happened, my professional side kicked in and I raced back to my office to prepare an official statement for the Commissioner. It wasn't long until I was responding to press interviews - all looking for the local angle. Jim and Roger were interviewed by local media. I was not able to spend much of my day viewing that tragic television image when the Challenger turned into white billowing smoke against the blue sky. Instead, I had to do press.

When I finally got home that evening, I turned on the ABC News with Peter Jennings and watched the explosion, over and over again - much the way I kept watching airplanes fly into buildings a decade and a half later. Just seconds after I turned on the television news, the tears were finally allowed to flow. I'd had to keep my emotions in check all day long, not allowing them to interfere with what I had to do. And once the tears began, they didn't stop for hours. I ached for Christa's family, her students, the thousands of teachers who had applied to have a seat on that shuttle, the people involved in the selection process. And then the guilt sunk in - thinking that one of the exceptional Nebraska teachers we had selected could have been on that flight. I grieved for the heroes we lost that day for a very long time. I grieved that a project that had been a huge part of my work life for the better part of a year ended with such a tragedy.

January 28, 1986 remains the most difficult day of my professional life. I still don't know how I got through the media phone calls and interviews. I definitely took this tragedy very personally.

Both Jim and Roger continued to have outstanding careers in education and Roger was selected Nebraska Teacher of the Year in 1989. Roger is retired and lives in Omaha. Jim now teaches journalism at Nebraska Wesleyan University. They are good men and good teachers. I'm very proud to have known them and gone through the Teacher in Space project with them.

Related articles:

Teacher in Space finalist acquires loads of space lore (originally published July 20, 1985)

Jim Schaffer in top 100 of 14,000 applicants

Lincoln Teacher Could Have Been on the Challenger

Roger Rea recalls the Teacher in Space project

To read what other bloggers have written about the Challenger tragedy, click here.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, it made me stop and think and is such a different experience on this tragic day. I am richer because of learning of your experience.

  2. I remember that day, too. When a co-worker told us what had happened, my first reaction was "Oh, no, that is impossible, so this must be a dream." To read the experience of someone who was so closely involved in events that led up to that day brings back all those memories and is a reminder of how many people were affected by the tragedy. Thanks for posting this.

  3. I found your account very moving and it brought to mind my own experiences relaing to the impact of major national and international events. This could be a great blog prompt for others to share their expereinces.

  4. Thank you for the kind comments, ladies. This was one of those memories that had been on the shelf for quite a while. It took a lot to reach back and dust it off. It means a lot that to me that you were moved by what I wrote.

  5. Susan - you can read other bloggers' memories of this event here:

  6. Such an eloquent account. Thanks for taking the time to put your memories into words.

  7. I'm glad you got to share your experiences in the teacher selection process, I found that interesting. Per Nolichucky, you gave "an eloquent account" of your memories and for that I thank you.

  8. Susan, thanks for sharing your unique perspective on this event.