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Thirty years ago Thursday, the nation watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded moments after takeoff, killing six astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. She was one of 11,000 applicants to get the opportunity and was set to be the first private citizen in space.
Holly Merrow and Alison Cohen were watching that day from Concord High School. Merrow, now a teacher in Camden, Maine, was one of McAuliffe's students. Cohen was a young reporter with local New Hampshire radio station WGIR and had interviewed McAuliffe and her husband Steven several times leading up to the space flight.
Merrow and Cohen join Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd to remember McAuliffe and the impact that day had on the community.
Do you still think about the day the Challenger exploded, 30 years ago?
”We definitely do, especially around this time of the year. It’s like it just happened yesterday, for most people and not just the students.”
Recalling the day it happened.
“We had school that day. We were sitting in classrooms. This was back in 1986 and it was a big deal, but the cable company had, that year, graciously installed cable in each of the classrooms and provided TVs in all of the classrooms so that when the launch happened, no matter where we were in the school, we could watch it. That was pretty exciting, and there was a lot of press in the building that had been there for days and days. There was a lot of excitement around the launch, lots of activities and celebrations and things that happened for about a year before the launch as well.”
Then the unthinkable happened.
“It was a horrible sight. I had been to Florida during one of the first launches as a younger kid. So when the explosion happened I thought, oh, aren’t those rockets supposed to come off? It didn’t look quite right, so I looked to one of the teachers, I was in a chemistry class at the time, so I looked the teacher and she was already crying.”
What was Christa McAuliffe like as a teacher?
“I remember her just being kind and helpful. She was very exuberant in her teaching and excited about what she was teaching. She was always willing to help outside of the classroom if you needed it. I remember her constantly, every day that I stayed late after school to make up work that I’d missed for other classes, and I remember her checking in to see if there was anything she could do to help me.”
You’re a teacher now. Was she an inspiration to you?
“I think she was just an inspiration to me in that I want to do something that would make a difference. During my master’s degree program I used some of her quotes, ‘reaching for the stars’ and ‘I touch the future I teach’, to help booster me along or in projects and reports. I certainly shared my experiences with her with my classes over the years. I haven’t only been a math teacher, I’ve been an elementary school teacher as well for all subjects.”
Is there anything you bring to the classroom now that reminds you of Christa McAuliffe?
“I’m not sure if I bring anything. It’s the attitude to the kids, the struggle that you can accomplish anything you want to. No matter what life brings you, you can accomplish it. So many people have before you. I’m here to help kids succeed at whatever it is that they want to succeed at.”
How do you remember that day?
“Well, I just remember that day so clearly. My news director was in Florida covering the launch, and I was lucky enough to be in her classroom with her students. Very few reporters were allowed in. We were all watching, there were so many people there. Teachers and faculty were all crowded into the classroom, there were posters around the room. Then I remember the words ‘something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.’ Then we saw the plume of smoke. That image is just etched into our minds from that day. It was eerily silent in the classroom; just staring at the television and wondering, what was that? What did it mean? Was that supposed to happen? There was just, kind of a stunned silence. Then the principal of the school kind of herded all of the visitors out and we were all standing on the steps just looking at each other saying what was that? What just happened?”
Covering the story, what was it like in Concord?
“You have to remember, this was a small town, Concord, New Hampshire. All of Concord was just buzzing - all of New Hampshire was buzzing - with the fact of Christa was going to be doing this. WGIR was kind of her home station, so we met her many times and knew her family and interviewed her many times. We actually followed her since her selection. It was just so exciting for the whole town. Businesses would have signs out front, ‘Good Luck Christa.’ It was really the kind of thing where she was the hometown hero. That made it all the much worse when that happened.”
What did she tell you she was feeling leading up to the launch?
“From what I recall, she didn’t stress being nervous. She just talked about the excitement of it, not just to herself but really to draw attention to teaching and the teaching profession. We talked with her about the lessons she was going to be offering students from all over, who would be watching these lessons from space. I remember we asked her what was she going to be bringing with her, and one of the things was a stuffed animal, I think it was a frog, of her son’s that she was going to be taking with her on the mission. She was just very excited about being the first teacher in space.”
Did you keep in touch with the family afterwards?
“For some time we did. I remember [Christa’s husband] didn’t want to be contacted, did not want to speak to the media at the time, understandably. I believe he went on to become a judge in New Hampshire and we always kind of felt he was a friend of the family, because of the number of interviews we did with them and how many times they were at the radio station... and I think one of his children actually went on to become a teacher.”
What do you want the country to take away from this very important moment in our history?
“That’s a big question. I’m not sure I can say, but I was happy that at the time and during the whole process, education, teaching and the profession itself and that excitement really brought people to think about teaching in a new way. I think that’s been a lasting impression of that time. She was a wonderful person, and I’m glad I got to know her as a person.”
This segment aired on January 28, 2016.