Mourning the Loss of Challenger 25 Years Later
It’s been 25 years since teacher Christa McAuliffe died aboard the Challenger space shuttle, and people in her hometown of Concord, New Hampshire, still don’t like to talk about it.
“It hurts every time the anniversary comes around. Especially for those that knew her,” said New Hampshire Executive Council member Daniel St. Hilaire, 43. “My son is 18 and a freshman in college, and I’ve never sat down with him to talk about it.”
A long-time resident of Concord, St. Hilaire went to Concord High School, where McAuliffe taught Social Studies and was an adviser for the Youth in Government club, which he was a member of. He remembers her as a passionate teacher, who stressed real world, hands-on experience both in school and out. “She was a different kind of teacher — she didn’t just lecture in classroom,” he said. “She firmly believed that kids would learn better by experience and she lived her life that way.”
McAuliffe’s husband Steven, who is a federal judge in Concord, N.H. released a statement today saying, “I know Christa would say that that is the most precious lesson – ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions when they remain true to themselves and enthusiastically pursue their own dreams wherever they may lead. Our family knows that generations of students and teachers will continue to share her love of learning and love of life, and will do great things for our world.”
A whole generation has grown up since McAuliffe and six other astronauts died on Jan. 28, 1986, and still her legacy lives on in this small city about an hour north of Boston. She was passionately loved by students and residents, and her death affects those who remember her. Some people still tear up at the mention of McAuliffe’s name.
“It’s difficult to have it all brought back to the forefront in my mind again,” said Carol Berry, 71, a friend of McAuliffe’s who was watching in person at Cape Canaveral when the Challenger blew up. “Every year, I think about it again. I just feel so badly.”
In the years since the explosion, Concord has taken steps to ensure McAuliffe will never be forgotten. The local planetarium is named in her honor and houses memorabilia associated with the Challenger mission. Students and visitors are given tours and taught about her impact on the space program. Recently, the city named a soon to be completed elementary school after her, giving her an honor usually reserved for presidents and ensuring students for years to come will know her name.
Keeping McAuliffe’s memory alive also is important to Holly Merrow, who graduated from Concord High in 1986 and now teaches in Portland, Maine. Merrow, taught by McAuliffe in a class about women in history, recalled that she made lessons fun, interesting and real — and she tries to do the same.
Merrow teaches third grade, but for several years taught a lesson about McAuliffe and the Challenger to students in the fifth grade and in middle school. She showed them a scrapbook full of NASA stickers, as well as articles on the explosion and McAuliffe’s selection by NASA, in which she was chosen from more than 11,000 applicants in a contest to be the first civilian teacher on a space flight.
“I teach with teachers who weren’t even alive then,” she said. She admits it’s been hard going back in time to give those lessons, saying, “I just well up sometimes.”
Over the years, the city has observed the anniversary in their own quiet way, without fanfare or media attention, and this year’s anniversary will not be much different. The only event planned to mark the occasion is at the planetarium, where a representative from NASA will speak and a short documentary will be shown to teachers and members of the public.
In a rare public comment, her husband, Steven McAuliffe, recently wrote a heartfelt letter to the board about the school being named after her. “There is no honor that Christa would cherish more than to have her name associated with a school in the hometown that she loved so dearly,” he wrote. “I hope generations of students, teachers and administrators who pass through the new school will be inspired by her most precious lesson — ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions when they remain true to themselves and follow their dreams.”