This article was first published in educational Horizons 


Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

The “ultimate field trip” begins 11:38 A.M. on January 28, 1986. With a thunderous roar that shakes the earth, the space shuttle Challenger rises in seeming slow-motion from Launch Pad 39B. Strapped to the back of a huge external fuel tank and giant booster rockets that burn ten tons of fuel a second, the Orbiter looks toy-like amidst the smoke and flame.

Moments after lift-off Challenger’s on-board computers execute their programming and the enormous assemblage rolls onto its back. The Orbiter now hangs vulnerably beneath the roaring rocket boosters and external fuel tank that is as large as a World War II blimp. In the crew cabin, five men and two women feel themselves being inverted, but that feeling is muted by the tremendous G – force that is shoving them back into their seats as Challenger begins accelerating to a planned 17,000 miles per hour..

The feelings are familiar to Commander Dick Scobee and Mission Specialists Judy Resnik, Ron McNair and Ellison Onizuka. They have flown the shuttle before. Two others, Pilot Mike Smith and Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis are new to actual space flight; but are very familiar with launch pad operations. Only Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe is a novice.

At 19,000 feet Challenger reaches Mach I, and the rocket boosters throttle back in anticipation of the maximum aerodynamic stress generated when Challenger breaks the sonic barrier. For fourteen long seconds the space craft is buffeted, first by powerful sonic shock waves then high altitude winds; but she breaks free of the turbulence and her engines resume full power. Seventy seconds after lift-off the shuttle reaches 50,000 feet. She is right on schedule.

The crew members begin to relax. But intense pre-launch cold, coupled with faulty design, has caused a crucial O-ring to fail in the right booster rocket. Now a fiery leak is growing progressively larger, burning its way into Challenger’s enormous fuel tank. Suddenly a catastrophic explosion tears Challenger apart. The sealed crew cabin is blasted loose from the rest of Challenger and propelled upward another 15,000 feet. Then, for an agonizing two minutes and forty five seconds the crew cabin tumbles to earth. The blast does not kill all of the crew members. Recovered gauges indicated most of the emergency air supply has been consumed. So at least some of the crew are alive when the crew cabin slams into the water at 207 miles per hour killing everyone on board.

The death of Challenger’s professional crew members, was tragic. But what exacerbated this tragedy was the death of Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe.  That was the unintended consequence of a political ploy to obscure President Reagan’s neglect of, and assault on, public education.

Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher and mother of two, was the “first citizen passenger” scheduled to go into space.Why?  Ostensibly, it was to symbolize America’s high regard for teaching and schooling. She would televise “lessons” on days four and five of her “ultimate field trip.” But hidden from her was the fact that she, was aiding President Reagan’s reelection. A teacher in Challenger would make the incumbent President look like he really cared about public schooling in spite of the fact that he had been a long term foe of public education, had set out to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and was making repeated drastic cuts in the Federal education budget.

Here is a little background. In 1984 when the decision was made to launch a Teacher-in-Space, the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign was already underway. Reagan-Bush was known to be vulnerable to Mondale-Ferraro on several issues. And one of the most important was education. Mondale was effectively highlighting Reagan’s “second-rate leadership” that produced “an appalling record” of “educational neglect.” Mondale’s campaign even issued a “report card” on Reagan’s educational policy that gave him “F’s” in everything but dramatics and sports.

Shortly after Mondale launched this offensive a Gallup Poll revealed that a large majority of Americans thought him more likely than President Reagan to improve public schooling. This Mondale strength concerned Reagan campaign officials. They felt the President needed to recapture at least some of the “education vote?” To do so they planned a counter offensive. It was launched on August 27, 1984. While speaking at a District of Columbia junior high school, the President announced several new members of his Advisory Council on Education. That was a warm-up. Then he proudly told the world who America’s first passenger in space would be. “Today” the President said” I’m directing NASA to begin a search in all of our elementary and secondary schools and choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America’s finest — a teacher. One year later Christa McCauliffe was selected from over 11,000 applicants.

NASA’s professional astronauts were uncomfortable with political passengers such as Christa McAuliffe. Astronaut Judy Resnick, who was to perish with McCauliffe, once privately asked a friend, “What are we going to do with these people?” But it turned out that Christa McAuliffe was not a problem. She was very professional in her commitment and trained hard for the mission.

But how well she trained was not what really mattered. What mattered was how her presence, and her National Education Association membership (the NEA had endorsed Mondale), could be exploited by the Reagan White House

In fairness, White House staffers had scant reason to think their political agenda would kill Christa. They knew space flight was risky; but NASA was famous for its “fail safe” flight standards. What White House officials did not know was that the same motivation that led key NASA officials to accept blatant political orchestration of crew assignments also caused them to make fatally incautious decisions concerning Challenger’s launch. A key reason for NASA officials going ahead on January 28th, in spite of dangerously cold temperatures and ice build up on the launch structure, was to get the space craft in orbit in time for the President’s State of the Union Message that very evening.

“When the shuttle lifts off,” President Reagan said as he announced the Teacher-In-Space project, “all of America will be reminded of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation. I can’t think of a better lesson for our children and our country.” But when the shuttle exploded, all of America should have been reminded of the short shrift teachers and education have often gotten in the life of our nation. The whole Teacher-in-Space effort was just eyewash for an administration that had gotten itself into political hot water by providing nothing but empty platitude in support of education while slashing federal education budgets and quietly undermining organized teaching for purely political reasons.

The death of Christa McCaulifef is representative of all the phony pronouncements of impossibly lofty schooling goals that our politicians offer. The death of Christa McCauliff is a metaphor for every conscientious teacher in our inner cities who tries to teach in overcrowded, understaffed, underfunded, dilapidated classrooms destabilized by violence. The death of Christa McCauliffe is representative of every conscientious teacher who is piously lectured by cynical politicians that if he or she would only try harder, the kids would do better. 

The death of Christa McCauliffe also symbolizes why our best and brightest typically avoid a teacher’s life. And I can’t think why they should change their mind.