Concord, New Hampshire, USA: a small town, some might say a sleepy, white picket fences sort of place. Where nothing much really happens when compared to a New York or a Los Angeles. A place where the inhabitants are mostly happy living in their anonymity, getting on with their lives, and letting the world just pass them by.
It’s the start of the academic year at the High School as a curly brown-haired woman, someone you might not notice if they passed you on the street or at the shopping mall, strides with purpose through the building and into the classroom. Although she’s walked into a new school many times before, she can’t escape the excitement and nervousness she always feels on that first day as she anticipates the new challenges ahead of her. “Good morning, everyone!”, she says. “I’m Mrs Christa McAuliffe. Your new history and social studies teacher…” And so, her day, her new year, her new life is about to begin.
A few months into her new job, Christa’s at home, relaxing after a hard day made up of the usual classroom work, followed by the evening ritual of feeding, cleaning and putting her two young children to bed and then, finally, a mountain of homework, now marked, ready for the next day. She sees an item in the newspaper announcing a national competition: “This sounds interesting! What do you think?” showing her husband, Steve.
“Really?”, he replies a little brusquely, “Your life’s here in Concord, with your feet on the ground, not with your head in the clouds.”
Christa frowns: “If I don’t do it, I’ll only regret it for the rest of my life.” And with that, she determinedly reaches for paper and pen.
It’s early July, there’s a rattle of the family home letterbox and Christa sees an official looking letter bearing her name lying on the mat. With some trepidation she picks it up and opens it:
“Dear Mrs McAuliffe,
We wish to inform you…”
The rest of the words become a blur as she tries to take them all in. The world around her fades, time stands still; at that moment there is only her and the letter. All her dreams from when she was a little girl, all her hopes that she poured into that application, months before, are laid out in the sentences on that piece of paper. A few days later, the Vice President of the United States announces to the country that Christa McAuliffe is to become the first teacher to go into space.
What follows is a whirlwind of training and preparation. Like an athlete, she has to condition her mind and body for the rigours, as Captain James T Kirk of the Starship Enterprise once described it, of boldly going to that “final frontier”. Simulation after simulation, test after test, being thrown around and crushed under g-forces,ting in zero gravity with her soon-to-be shipmates aboard the aeroplane they fondly call “The Vomit Comet” which, all too often, lives up to its name. Alongside these, she rehearses and rehearses the lessons she’s going to give. She worries that she might let her class down back in Concord, but she endures and trains hard because as she says: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”
October, three months before her mission, Christa’s at the Kennedy Space Centre, with one of the other crew, anonymous, just a face in the crowd watching the launch of the Challenger shuttle. She jumps up and down, laughing and yelling for joy as, with a roar of thunder and fire, it lumbers into the sky, picking up speed until it arcs majestically into the void. Soon it will be her time to follow that same path, to touch the heavens and look down upon the earth.
T-30 days: It emerges from its shell into the bitterly cold, bright day. Weeks of preparation have come to fruition as it starts to crawl along the gravel road, its workers scurry around it like ants, gently nudging it to keep it on course, nursing it, attending to its every need. But this is not the work of Mother Nature: this is the hand of man. The huge tractor trundles on bearing its precious cargo which gleams a brilliant white in the sunshine, pointing to the sky and proclaiming itself, in all its majesty, as the pinnacle of mankind’s achievements: a technological wonder.
T-29 days: The vehicle has disgorged the shuttle which is now cocooned within a gantry of steel from which hoses, electrical wires and service lines snake out, feeding and monitoring it; like a caterpillar inside a chrysalis patiently waiting for the moment when it will burst forth into the world. For the next few weeks, systems will be prepared and tested; statuses are checked, rechecked, and checked again.
T-43 hours: The clock begins its countdown. Control room personnel begin to assemble and start their work on the systems and software.
T-27 hours: The launch pad is cleared of non-essential personnel as the clock ticks into the critical part of the launch.
T-19 hours: Final preparations are carried out on the orbiter readying it for fuelling and flight.
T-11 hours: Weather and engineering reports are pored over and final checks of the launch-pad are made.
T-6 hours: Christa and her fellow astronauts start suiting up. Some chat with their attendants as they struggle into their flight suits, adopting positions that wouldn’t look out of place in a yoga class, stretching to push arms and legs through joints and sleeves. Others are simply lost in their own thoughts.
At the same time, the final visual checks of the orbiter take place and the external fuel tank is filled with half a million gallons of propellant: enough to break the bonds that hold it down.
Back in Concord an air of excitement flows through the High School. The pupils will get to watch their teacher, their Mrs McAuliffe, do something no other teacher has ever done before and they are so immensely proud of her. As launch approaches, lessons are all but forgotten as staff and students cluster around every available television hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
T-3 hours: Time to go. With beaming smiles, Christa and the rest of the crew make their way to the launch pad. She holds her breath as she gazes up and takes in the orbiter which will be her home for the next six days and ninety-six orbits of Planet Earth. They enter the cockpit, take their positions, get strapped in by the support personnel, and the hatch is closed.
With the rest of her crew, she works through her parts of the pre-flight schedule. The inexorable communication between the shuttle and Mission Control eats through the remaining time until there is nothing more for them to do, the moment they’ve all trained for has arrived.
T-9 minutes: In Mission Control there’s a final “Go/No Go” poll of the control room launch team. Everyone says “Go!”
T-5 minutes: The last arm holding the shuttle in place swings away from the craft. It’s on its own now, free from the shackles that have bound it for the last few weeks: it’s ready to fly!
T-10 seconds: The final few moments of the countdown are broadcast over the Tannoy to the crowds that have been waiting for hours in the public areas several miles away, or parked up by the sides of highways listening to their radios; all eyes turned to the launch pad in shared anticipation of the power and fury that’s about to be unleashed. The clock ticks to zero, there is an infinitesimal moment of silence before the solid booster rockets ignite and, with an unearthly rumble, the shuttle lifts off the pad.
The roar inside the capsule is deafening and Christa’s vital signs shoot through the roof as she realises that it’s finally happening, she’s on her way to space! She takes a deep breath because in this part of the journey she’s just a passenger, so she might as well sit back and enjoy the ride of a lifetime; the real work will start soon enough.
T+3 seconds: Mission Control announces that lift-off is confirmed, the vehicle has cleared the tower.
T+28 seconds: They’re at ten thousand feet and climbing.
T+41 seconds: They’re at nineteen thousand feet and now travelling at the speed of sound.
But there’s a flaw. A flaw in the design of the engines that will only come to light on this freezing cold morning of January 28th 1986.
T+48 seconds: A flash is seen on the right wing, followed by a second, then a third.
T+59 seconds: There’s a plume of flame on one of the boosters.
T+62 seconds: They’re at thirty-five thousand feet and touching a thousand miles an hour.
T+64 seconds: A bright glow appears on the main fuel tank.
Unaware that Challenger is now in serious trouble, the pilot confirms his next action with Mission Control and continues the shuttle’s ascent by throttling the engines to full power. Howling with renewed energy, they push the craft onward towards the stars.
T+72 seconds: One of the booster rockets starts to detach from the main body.
T+73 seconds: There’s another flash and, at a height of forty-eight thousand feet, Challenger disappears in a white billowing cloud and all data transmissions from it suddenly stop. Seconds pass, pieces of shuttle and rocket are flung in different directions as if they were part of a firework display. But the still intact crew cabin carries on upward, seemingly desperate to fulfil its mission, until the unforgiving embrace of gravity reaches out and takes hold…
The classrooms at Concord High fall silent; no-one is sure what’s just happened. Then, one of teachers realises, gasps as she instinctively puts her hand to her mouth in shock, and quietly says: “Christa…”
Just before that fateful flight, Christa said in a press conference: “You have to dream. We all have to dream. Dreaming is okay. Imagine me teaching from space, all over the world, touching so many people’s lives. That’s a teacher’s dream! I have a vision of the world as a global village, a world without boundaries. Imagine a history teacher making history!”
And she was, and is, and will be every woman who dares to think the unthinkable; a woman who dreamt of doing extraordinary things. Whose limits were only defined by the breadth of her imagination and the depths of space.
In memory of Sharon Christa McAuliffe (1948 – 1986)