Ongoing Stories of My Soul

Look over my shoulder as I ponder life.

January 28: A Mission to Remember

I had no intentions of writing about this subject. After all, it’s been 27 years. Even tragic events get forgotten, or worse; they get buried in the layers of more heartbreaking moments. But we have to own the events that shape our lives even if the molding of such is unforgettable. January 28, 1986 is a date etched on this writer’s timeline, for that is the date that the space shuttle, Challenger, exploded.

Many folks know where they were on four significant events: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the day the astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, the day that Challenger exploded, and of course, the terrorist attack on September 11th. To appreciate my devastation of the Challenger “malfunction” I need to retrace my steps. Let me begin by saying I never paid attention to my fourth grade teacher when she taught about planets. I cared nothing about space and besides, I would never need to know that stuff anyway. How limited a ten year old’s vision can be.

Fast-forward a bunch of years. I was now a teacher answering the kids’ questions of: “Why do we have to learn this anyway? I’ll never use it.” Go figure. But NASA had been flying a fleet of space shuttles into low-earth orbit. Our imaginations had been captured and the interest in such had waned. Wanting to excite American learners to study more math and science, the idea was to place a school teacher on board an upcoming mission. A public educator could be their best ambassador for the space program, and soon the applications were available. I need to interject that this was early eighties; we were still using typewriters. Yep. The application booklet was twelve pages long, with specific spaces for text. It was rugged. I was the only individual in Perry Township that applied. I had to get permission from my superintendent to proceed, as it would necessitate two years out of the classroom: one to train for the mission and another year to travel, speak, write, interview, etc., about such mission. I persevered. I created my project. I waited. I became a sponge on the space shuttle, learning every morsel of information I could on this unique bird.

I wasn’t selected. I was heartbroken and would soon learn that the teacher from New Hampshire, Christa McAuliffe, had a project that paralleled mine. I am still humbled and proud of such revelation. I have copies of her lesson plans she would have taught from space. But O rings had never connected portions of solid rocket boosters, which were going to be launched in freezing weather. They failed. A disaster occurred. We lost a crew of seven. Look closer at that crew. Five men, two women; one African American, one Pacific Islander, and the  major faiths were represented: Protestant, Catholic, Buddhism, and Jewish. It was an eclectic mix of folks. How I wished I was among them.

But that was not to be. My entire second grade classroom was replete with a space shuttle mockup, lessons, artwork, etc. I did not have my television on, as I had called a radio station and they said the launch was scrubbed. A dear co-worker came down to see how I was doing; the school secretary delivered the message from my sisters in Florida: they said they loved me and were so thankful I was not on board. I turned on my t.v.and the classroom became electric with excitement. “Did it launch, Mrs. Coffing? Is the teacher up in space?” I stared at the horrific image on the screen. The telemetry from launch was being given, then the silence. And the words, “We have an obvious major malfunction.” It couldn’t be! In my heart, I knew there would be no survivors. My dream of this mission was not damaged; it was obliterated. All I could think of was Christa’s son and family who witnessed the launch. I would later learn that my sisters’ yards would be littered for days, with debris raining down on their Orlando homes. I grieved, unable to teach for days. Other educators would step in and take my students until I regained my composure. I was loved beyond measure by a staff at Southport Elementary who had lived that venture of applying for ‘Teacher in Space’ with me. It became a common bond for us. January 28th was a benchmark in our history of education and friendship.

But the story of Challenger gave birth to living memorials in the form of ‘Challenger Learning Centers’ all over the United States. I am proud that for years, my fifth graders ‘ran missions’ at the Challenger Center in Brownsburg. We would ‘Return to the Moon’ or travel to Mars. Or ‘Rendevous with Comet Halley’. Upon my retirement, my staff at Southport Elementary had a brick with my name etched in it and placed on the ‘Memorial Wall’ with the likes of David Wolf, and others. I went to NASA for two weeks (at what is now the John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland) to learn more about space education. One of the engineers came off project and told us educators this: “Tell your students to dream without boundaries.” Unforgettable advice. And because of the Challenger disaster there are still folks ,employed by NASA, who cannot, to this day, watch a launch.

 I spent a week at Space Camp (for educators) in Huntsville, Alabama. I met one of the German rocket scientists who worked with Wernher von Braun which was amazing! And yes, I got to be the commander of the shuttle simulation. It was such an adventure! I learned a cool fact: Do you know what happened with Space Camp applications after the Challenger accident? Most folks guess they dwindled. Nope. They received so many they could not accommodate all of the campers! But you know, that is how it is with youth. They are the pioneers with courage, curiosity, and unflappable spirits. I heard myself say to my second graders in the moments following the disaster, “What happens when you are learning to ride a bike? You fall. You have a decision to make. Park the bike and never risk falling again…or climb back on and keep going. Kids, we are going to keep going.” I tell you, those words of wisdom came from a higher power. But oh, so true.

It has been said that the Teacher in Space and crew taught more in their death than in a successful mission. I can’t speak to that. I do know that there are two things that excite young learners. Learning about dinosaurs and space: two things they will never see, but take on faith. I would go on to receive my Aerospace Endorsement to my teaching license, and continue to teach about space exploration, Lunar Science, and yes, the workings of the space shuttle. I can tell you now, that while I have won many awards for teaching about flight, rocketry, space exploration, I would trade it all to stand on the moon and gaze back at Earth.

And if you ask me about January 28, 1986, I will tell you all I can. But don’t be surprised if I do so through my tears. The crew was the soul of the shuttle, and I do believe they have been at my side during many a lesson.

I end this very long blog with the rationale for writing: two of my former students sent a message on Facebook remembering this event and the part I played in it. How honored I was to know that they remembered their teacher, who almost, went into space.