Christa McAuliffe: More than just the teacher in space

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By Caroline Gordon, Editorial Staff

By Emily Rosenberg, Editorial Staff

People know Christa McAuliffe as the “Teacher in Space.” 

She boarded the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986 – which exploded seconds after taking off killing all seven astronauts. 

What they don’t know much about is her personal relationships and connections with students.

Arts & Ideas and SILD hosted Judith Kalaora via Zoom on March 11 to perform the one-woman show, “CHALLENGER: Soaring with Christa,” which details McAuliffe’s life as a mother, teacher, and aspiring astronaut. 

Her self-written show first premiered in 2016 at the Framingham Village Hall and was brought back for the 35th anniversary of the Challenger explosion. 

The show began with Kalaora in a classroom where she deducted points off her students’ final grades for incorrectly spelling her name. She encouraged students to confidently know their peers’ names as well. 

“I want my students to do their best and I’m never going to say, ‘Oh you’re a C student in English, you’re never going to be a poet.’ No. You have to dream. We all have to dream. Dreaming is OK!” she exclaimed. 

She added, “I want my students to learn as much as they can from seeing and doing as they learn from listening and reading.” 

The scene shifted to Kalaora, portraying McAuliffe, inviting a student’s father into her classroom. The father had trouble finding work due to his inability to fluently speak English. She offered to give him free English lessons after school hours, on one condition – his son would stop missing school. 

In another scene McAuliffe talked to a student who would be leaving her class for a new school. She reassured the student she would communicate with the new teachers to ensure he had the support he needed. She promised that his new teachers would trust him. 

Next, the show continued with her bringing 188 students on a field trip to the FBI Museum in Washington, D.C. – a trip she called “insane and brave.”

The scene switched to a living room where McAuliffe said she was having a “Bicentennial baby,” but didn’t know what she was doing. So, she decided to keep a journal, a practice she learned from Professor Haglet when she was a student at FSC. 

McAuliffe learned about the pioneer women who kept track of everything they saw and without their journals, they would not know anything about their journeys. 

“Maybe when my child is born and maybe when they get older… maybe I can hand them my journal, just like Professor Haglet taught me, and I can hand them a little piece of my life!” she said. 

Kalaora sang a lullaby as the scene shifted to her holding baby Scott. 

The next portion of the show detailed how two years after Scott was born, the McAuliffes moved to Concord, New Hampshire during the Blizzard of ’78, despite her husband Steve’s initial resistance after being offered a job with the Federal Defense Department.   

“Scott and I are going to live in Concord, New Hampshire. You can live wherever you want. Guess who wins that argument?” she asked. 

Soon after the move, their daughter Caroline was born in August 1979. 

The scene changed to Kalaora on a job interview over the phone. She answered the question, “What do you hope for your children?” with “For them to learn the skills they would need to live in space cities, which I believe NASA is close to creating.”

She then summarized her educational history on the phone call. In addition to graduating from Framingham State, she got her master’s from Bowie State College, a small and predominantly Black school in Maryland.

“It [Bowie State College] was exactly what I wanted. It was just like Framingham State because I could work closely with my professors,” she said. 

McAuliffe decided to teach high school after teaching junior high for seven years at an inner-city school in Maryland followed by one year in Concord. 

“This little lady got a job teaching at Concord High School!” she exclaimed. 

McAuliffe would teach history, law, and government. The school told her if she did well in her first year, they would let her create her own class, which she had been thinking about ever since she was a student at Framingham State. 

McAuliffe wanted to teach classes that showed her students “ordinary people can have an extraordinary impact on society.”

The program fast-forwarded to 1984, the year McAuliffe welcomed Concord High students into the class she created called “The American Woman,” where she discussed Sally Ride – the first American woman who ventured into space. 

In this class, McAuliffe instructed her students to keep journals to document their work throughout the semester, but also to use them for writing down personal feelings. 

She encouraged her students to attend Framingham State, and reflect on the journals to help them decide who they want to be. 

The next scene was Kalaora filling out her application after hearing President Regan announce the country would permit a teacher to go into space. 

“I write, and I write, and I re-write, this application five times. The essay questions are coming out of my ears,” she said.

Out of the 11,500 teachers who submitted applications to be the first teacher in space, McAuliffe and six others were accepted as finalists for the program. 

The show moved ahead to June 21, 1985, the night before McAuliffe traveled to Washington, when a suicidal Concord High School student showed up on her doorsteps. 

She picked up a phone to call the student’s parents and a doctor while she dismissed her husband’s concern of the legal implications she might face if she helped the girl. 

“Well, sue me!” she said. 

After helping the student, she traveled to Washington, D.C., where she had six days to present herself to the NASA Selection Committee.

“After the six days, I crawl into bed with my husband and I’m about to go to sleep and I get a phone call – I made the top 10!” she exclaimed. 

In a scene the finalists were told they would find out who won on live TV along with the rest of America. They disagreed with this method, so NASA told the finalists first that McAuliffe had won. 

The crew consisted of engineers Ron McNair, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, astronauts Mike Smith and Dick Scobee, Christa McAuliffe, and her backup Barbara Morgan. 

The scene shifted to Kalaora getting her picture taken prior to boarding the space shuttle and answering questions regarding training. 

She used the analogy from “The Wizard of Oz” of the Wicked Witch of the West melting to describe the feeling of being in NASA’s T-38, a supersonic jet trainer. The experience felt like her body was “melting away.”  

The final portion of the show included a man’s voice echoing through the phone. NASA wanted to help McAuliffe develop the lessons she would teach in space. 

Kalaora yelled back at the man’s voice, “Teachers don’t use scripts, they use lesson plans. I am a teacher. I need a lesson plan and I need students!

“If you want a teacher to fly, let a teacher fly!”