Christa McAuliffe’s Lost Science Lessons From the Space Shuttle Challenger

January 28, 2021Matt Fratus
NASA Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy, Christa McAuliffe six lessons, coffee or die

The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger: astronaut Ellison Onizuka, Teacher-in-Space Christa McAullife, astronaut Gregory Jarvis, astronaut Judith Resnik, pilot Mike Smith, Mission Commander Dick Scobee, and astronaut Ronald McNair. Photo courtesy of Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

“T-minus 15 seconds,” a voice from NASA interrupts the silence and initiates the countdown of the space shuttle Challenger preparing for launch. “T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, we have main engines start, 4, 3, 2, 1, and liftoff. Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower.”

At 11:38 a.m. on Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger space shuttle lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Onboard were six astronauts from NASA: Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, pilot Mike Smith, and mission commander Dick Scobee. In addition to the astronauts, there was Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. 

She had beaten out 11,000 other applicants including Sesame Streets Big Bird in NASA’s brand-new Teacher-in-Space Project. Once in space, McAuliffe was expected to teach six scripted science lessons to children around the world. Live demonstrations televised on PBS were also planned for the Challenger STS 51L Teacher-in-Space mission. 

But just 73 seconds in flight to space the Challenger exploded. Family members, friends, and NASA staff on the ground, as well as the millions of students watching the live CNN broadcast from their classrooms, were left stunned. There were no survivors.

President Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission headed by former Secretary of State William Rogers to investigate what happened. The Rogers Commission Report determined the cause of the accident was a failure of an “O-ring” seal in one of the two booster engines. The report also noted that NASA ignored safety concerns and accepted risk in order to achieve ambitious yearly goals.

It’s been 35 years since NASA’s first in-flight tragedy, but the legacy of those aboard the Challenger lives on. In April 1986, the families of the Challenger crew came together to found the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a leading nonprofit that strives to spark youth interest and joy in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

A NASA educational specialist, Bob Mayfield, produced a narrative description of the six planned activities in the 1980s, which have since become known as the six lost lessons. In partnership with NASA and STEM on Station, the Challenger Center worked with astronauts Ricky Arnold and Joe Acaba to demonstrate these lessons while at the International Space Station during the 2017-18 school year. Teachers in classrooms today can replicate what McAuliffe wasn’t able to do in space. All six scripted experiments have been made available and include a materials list, setup, and step-by-step instructions for teachers to use in the classroom with students.

These lessons cover the topics of effervescence, chromatography, leaf chromatography, walking rainbow, liquids in microgravity, and Newton’s laws. Although McAuliffe may have not accomplished her mission in space, her planning was not in vain. In her words: “I touch the future. I teach.”

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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