On This Day: Students Stunned as Space Shuttle ‘Challenger’ Explodes

When the space shuttle Challenger blasted off 28 January 1986 carrying Christa McAuliffe on board – who was going to be the first teacher in space – thousands of students in classrooms all across the country watched the lift-off. For 73 exciting seconds the spacecraft roared upward – then without warning it suddenly exploded into a huge fireball, killing all seven crew members and leaving students and teachers stunned and shaken.

Photo: the explosion of the Challenger
Photo: the explosion of the Challenger. Credit: NASA: Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the greatest shock occurred in McAuliffe’s own school, Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire, where the students were watching the launch on television and wildly cheering until disaster struck. The following article reports on the grief the students, faculty and staff at Concord High School felt that day, along with two accompanying articles reporting the reaction of other teachers who had applied for the “Teacher in Space” program.

An article about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 29 January 1986
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 29 January 1986, page 6

Here is a transcription of this article:

Shuttle Blast Stuns Students, Teachers Watching at School

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – Within seconds, a party died in silence as hundreds of Christa McAuliffe’s friends, students and colleagues watched the shuttle Challenger blast off Tuesday and then explode.

The 37-year-old teacher’s long-awaited launch was watched in classrooms throughout Concord High School, where she taught social studies and law and planned to return to teach in the fall.

About 200 pupils and teachers watching a television set in the auditorium counted down the last 10 seconds to launch and cheered wildly as the shuttle’s engines blasted the craft toward space.

Students continued to cheer and blow their party horns for only a few seconds, until someone yelled, “Damn it! There’s a major malfunction. Shut up so we can hear.”

Only the sound of NASA reports from the television filled the room as the students and teachers sat stunned, news television cameras filming their shock.

“It’s awful. Just too awful even to contemplate,” Concord High Principal Charles Foley said as he fought back tears. “I hope God will be good. I hope he’ll be good to all of us.”

Later, Foley said, “We extend our sincere condolences to the McAuliffe family in this terrible hour of tragedy, theirs and ours. We hope people of the world will recognize her as the heroine she is.”

Foley dismissed classes for the day and later canceled today’s session to allow the staff to meet with school counselors. Some pupils sought help from counselors Tuesday to deal with the emotional aftermath of the shuttle’s explosion, he said.

The McAuliffe loss was the second tragedy experienced by the school since Dec. 12, when a high school dropout armed with a shotgun was killed by police in a school hallway after taking two pupils hostage.

McAuliffe, who had been in training in Houston for the Challenger flight, expressed her frustration and sorrow then at being separated from her pupils and unable to help them cope with the shooting.

After the explosion, McAuliffe’s colleagues stood in shock and students whispered to each other and themselves, “This isn’t real, is it? This can’t be happening?”

“People were so high up and now they’re down so low,” said 16-year-old Craig Burbank of Concord.

“A lot of us had gotten tired of all the space shuttle and Christa hype, but no one wanted anything to go wrong,” said another Concord High student, Mark Letalien, 16, of Concord.

Many of Concord’s 30,000 residents were glued to local TV screens, including colleagues of McAuliffe’s husband, Steven, a lawyer who witnessed the crash firsthand from the Kennedy Space Center.

Edward Shumaker, a member of Steven McAuliffe’s firm, was interviewing a witness in federal court when the judge recessed the case for the day. Shumaker, a close friend of Steven McAuliffe, broke down upon the news.

“I can’t say anything,” Shumaker said, tears streaming down his face.

Another member of the firm, Mark Broth, said no one had considered McAuliffe to be in danger.

“People weren’t thinking in those terms,” he said. “They considered it a positive thing, an adventure.”

Broth said Steven McAuliffe never seemed worried when he had been asked in interviews about the danger. “It was mostly jokes about him being ‘Mr. Mom’ while Christa was in training,” Broth said.

An article about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 29 January 1986
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 29 January 1986, page 6

Here is a transcription of this article:

S.C. Teacher in Space Finalist Remembers Mrs. McAuliffe

By Sheron Smith
South Carolina Bureau

AIKEN – Mike Farmer was teaching a physics class Tuesday at Greenville County’s Riverside High School when he learned the space shuttle Challenger had exploded with teacher Christa McAuliffe on board.

The news perhaps hit him a little harder than other teachers, including several in Aiken County, who were witnessing one of their number make history: Farmer, as one of the two South Carolina finalists in the Teacher in Space program, had met Mrs. McAuliffe last year in Washington, D.C., during the program’s final selection process.

“I have to try to get myself together here,” a shaken Farmer said during a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. “A student came and told me, ‘You’d better come look at the television.’ When I saw it I knew there was little hope for any survivors.”

Farmer, a chemistry and physics teacher, spent a week in Washington mingling with the other finalists and discussing what the program would mean to teachers across the country.

“Christa was quiet, reserved, personable,” he said. “When she spoke you listened because you knew she had something to say. She knew the danger and fear, as we all did. I think she was an excellent choice.”

And while they never met Mrs. McAuliffe, Aiken County teachers who had vied for her seat on the shuttle said they felt the loss as well.

“She has been a very good example of how dedicated a teacher can be,” said Pamela Faustmann, an English teacher at South Aiken High School. “It was her choice to go. My first thought when I heard wasn’t, ‘Whew, I’m glad I wasn’t there.’ But when I called my husband he said he was so glad he was talking to me.”

Angela Burkhalter, another Aiken teacher who applied to the program, said she began to think about how much she had in common with Mrs. McAuliffe after hearing news of the explosion.

“I identified quite closely with her,” said Mrs. Burkhalter, a fourth-grade teacher at Hammond Hill Elementary School. “I have two children, like her, and my husband is an attorney, too. I really feel like I’ve lost a good friend. My students were saying today, ‘I’m so glad you didn’t get picked.’”

Despite the tragedy, Farmer said he would take a shuttle trip if given another chance.

“I wanted to go into space as a teacher and convince the public that teachers are dedicated and competent and deserve some recognition,” he said. “I just hope, after what’s happened, no one questions the dedication of a teacher. Christa was there exemplifying what I think is one of the greatest professions in the world.”

An article about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 29 January 1986
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 29 January 1986, page 6

Here is a transcription of this article:

Educators Lost One of Their Own, Richmond County Teachers Say

By Stephanie Neal
Staff Writer

The tragic launch of the space shuttle Challenger had additional significance for several Augusta educators, because Christa McAuliffe was one of them.

Mrs. McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space, was killed with six other members of the flight crew when the spacecraft exploded shortly after takeoff Tuesday.

“I know the whole world is grieving, but this was a teacher,” said Nancy Cisick, lead teacher at Hephzibah Elementary School. “My mind is only on her. I just can’t stop crying,” even hours after the accident, she said.

Mrs. Cisick was watching the television coverage of the launch at home, as Richmond County’s schools were closed Tuesday because of severe cold weather. The tears began when the shuttle exploded, she said.

Then she got on the phone. “I just went through the phone book, calling any name I could think of,” she said.

Mrs. Cisick said she was among 11,000 applicants for National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Teacher in Space Project, but that she dropped out of the process at the second phase because of the amount of paperwork it involved.

Another Augusta teacher, Dan Funsch, who teaches math and science at Allelulia Community School, completed the application process for the Teacher in Space Project. And he said he would do it again, despite Tuesday’s accident.

“You have to take opportunities and challenges as they are presented, and you can’t worry too much about the unknown,” he said. “I think most of the others (teachers) would apply again, too.”

Funsch expects his high school-level students to come into his classroom with lots of questions today.

“They will do most of the talking,” he said. “They’ll probably ask me if I’m glad I wasn’t picked.”

Richmond County teachers also will have to deal with their students’ reactions to the disaster in classes today, according to Willarena Williams, the county’s Coordinator of Science, Health and Art.

“What we have to do here is to reassure the child,” she said. “Once we (the teachers) share with them the distress and the stark tragedy, because of the great loss of life and the personal involvement of the family, we need to take a broader view. It is a scientific endeavor, and there are certain risks involved.”

Fourth-grade teacher Beverly Hite already has an idea how she will discuss the disaster with her students at Meadowbrook Elementary School today.

“Modern day heroes is the first thing that comes to my mind,” she said.

Superintendent Dr. John Strelec said he will ask all Richmond County schools to fly flags at half-staff today.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers, including more recent events. What are your memories of the Challenger disaster? Please share your stories with us in the comments section below.

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