Editor's note: Christa McAuliffe is among the 10 women to make USA Today's "Women of the Century" list for New Hampshire. The feature is in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. McAuliffe is being profiled here in a nod to her Framingham roots and her lasting impact in the city.
FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- Scott Reynolds was in French class at Concord (N.H.) High School when he watched the Challenger space shuttle launch -- followed by the splitting of its contrails in two directions.
"I knew what happened almost instantly," said Reynolds, a self-described "shuttle buff." He followed every launch, tracked the flights and made drawings of the shuttles.
On Jan. 28, 1986, he was watching one of his school's teachers -- Framingham native Christa McAullife -- become the first American civilian to board a space shuttle. McAuliffe, 37, was selected from among 11,000 teachers to board the Challenger space shuttle mission as part of a NASA program called the "Teacher in Space Project."
The hope for the program, announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, was for teachers to serve as payload specialists aboard the shuttles, later returning to their classrooms to share their experiences with students.
McAuliffe, a 1970 Framingham State University (then Framingham State College) graduate who studied education and history, was a high school social studies teacher in Concord, New Hampshire. She planned to film science lessons while in orbit, to be distributed to classrooms nationwide.
She was popular and well liked among students, said Reynolds, noting that McAuliffe taught his two sisters. And she would have been one of his teachers the following year, when he would be a senior.
Instead, Reynolds watched in horror with hundreds of classmates that day when the Challenger exploded just over a minute after its launch from Cape Canaveral, killing the seven crew members aboard -- including McAuliffe.
* From the Archives: Remembering Framingham native Christa Corrigan McAuliffe, the Challenger explosion
"I remember being really upset, sad when it happened and feeling pretty numb," he said of the explosion. "Once details about the explosion started to come out (about the decision to launch despite warnings from engineers who were concerned about the O-ring failure), I started to get really mad. It really woke me up about politics."
NASA canceled the teacher program in 1990, and after significant safety protocol changes, developed the Educator Astronaut Project in 1998. In 2004, the entire Challenger space shuttle crew was awarded the Congressional Space Medal Of Honor posthumously.
Today, Reynolds teaches science at the St. Paul's School in Concord. It was the impact of teachers who influenced his career choice, and he continues to show his students the impact one teacher had on him -- despite never taking a class with her. For nearly 20 years, he has conducted a field trip to a local cemetery for his ecology students, and after the trip, he drives them by McAuliffe's grave.
"Christa's influence was predominantly posthumous in the sense that her experiences (the training, her excitement before the launch and the national appeals for valuing teachers that occurred after the explosion) made me realize the value of teaching and the joy and satisfaction that can come from a career in teaching," Reynolds said. "Plus, the events, decisions and politics that led to the explosion really discouraged me from NASA and high-level applied science."
'The world as a global village'
It's been more than 34 years since McAuliffe's death, and since then more than 40 schools and other institutions throughout the world bear her name.
They includes the Christa McAuliffe Regional Charter Public School, attended by about 400 students and among 36 credentialed schools associated with expeditionary learning, said Director Frank Tipton. It's in Framingham, where McAuliffe grew up on Joseph Road as the oldest of Ed and Grace Corrigan's five children.
The Marian High School graduate began her teaching career in Maryland, later earning a master's degree in education supervision and administration from Bowie State College. She married and had two children with her high school sweetheart, Steve McAuliffe, and later went to work as a teacher in Concord, New Hampshire, where she taught American history, law and economics.
Even in death, McAuliffe's energy was far from destroyed; rather, it inspired more creation.
McAuliffe never got to film her science lessons in space, but astronauts (and former educators) Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold later did (though not in space). In 2018, they released those lessons for a project called Christa's Lost Lessons, filmed aboard the International Space Station.
In 2021, a commemorative coin featuring McAuliffe will be sold to mark the 35th anniversary of the Challenger explosion. The coin comes with a $10 surcharge, which will go toward the FIRST robotics program to fund mentor-based STEM programs.
* $1 coin will be released in 2021 featuring Framingham native Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger explosion
In 1994, the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning opened in Framingham, attracting the curious minds of up to 12,000 students, teachers and families per year, said Director Irene Porro, an astrophysicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
That center features the Challenger Learning Center, for students and industry professionals to experience space mission simulation programs; a 30-foot domed theater holding the center's digital planetarium; and many science exhibits, including an interactive virtual tour of the International Space Station.
In the past few years, the center has served more high school and college students, said Porro, and is holding more out-of-school programs, especially for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.
Over the next 25 years, the center plans to open a multidisciplinary lab, an engineering lab and a re-imagined Challenger Learning Center mission simulator. Central to this vision is flexible and adaptive integrated learning environments, especially for remote learning," said Porro.
There's one quote from McAuliffe that has shaped Porro's work as director of the center: "I have a vision of the world as a global village, a world without boundaries."
"This is particularly true now, at a time of crisis, produced by the pandemic, when we are all called to work together to defeat an invisible enemy that operates independently of any physical or ideological boundary," said Porro. "I believe Christa's legacy today is very much alive and grounded in her visionary spirit.
"It seems to me that she was a person who focused on what was possible, through hard work and dedication, instead of what could constrain her or prevent anyone of us from achieving our objectives," Porro continued. "This is why she strongly believed that she, a history teacher, could become an astronaut. She also believed in the ability to introduce positive change that we collectively, as a society, have."
The representation of women in STEM today remains complex, Porro said, as women are well represented in astronomy and astrophysics, but less so in computer science and engineering.
"However, women of color -- and especially black women -- are severely underrepresented in astronomy and astrophysics," Porro said. "Women are also well represented in the life sciences but, in this case, the groups severely underrepresented are men of color."
That's why a main mission of the center is to increase inclusive learning experiences, programming capacity and accessibility for all, she said.
"Any genuine commitment to Christa's vision must reflect her own actions, beginning with ideas and facilities that are free of boundaries, unconstrained by convention and ready to evolve with the changing needs of all learners," said Porro. "Now, more than ever, the McAuliffe Center chooses to put its energies into pursuing what Christa first envisioned."
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