Sunday, January 30, 2011

Challenger Memories

The 25th anniversary of The Challenger shuttle disaster with teacher/astronaut Christa McCauliffe on board has brought back memories. I was one of the 16,000 teachers who had applied to be on that shuttle flight. I had to get my principal to sign the form. She couldn't get her pen out fast enough.

Two teachers from each state would be chosen as finalists and flown to Washington where the winners would be chosen. McCauliffe was the winner and Barbara Morgan was the backup. Ironically, Morgan was slated to go into space on the flight after the doomed Columbia (Feb. 2007) {and as a commenter pointed out did fly on the Enterprise}. Are teachers never to go into space? Though we know if it was up to Bloomberg, every senior teacher would be sent to the moon.

I was fascinated by astronomy since my youngest years - I always perked up from my sleepy state when teachers touched on the subject - which unfortunately was all too rare - until Sputnik - which we heard so much about as a result of Obama's speech this week. I tried to teach about space in my classroom even when it was not part of the grade science curriculum.

Around 1980 I took a year long telescope building class at the old Hayden Planetarium - there was a club that operated out of the basement and we had extraordinary access. Every week for a year I walked around a barrel rubbing two piece of glass together to make an 8 inch mirror for a reflector telescope, which I still have. The crew in the club was pretty funky- engineer types, mostly amateur - but brilliant people.

Through the club (which was eventually tossed out by a new director of the Planetarium) I became friends with Barry Levin, one of the most interesting people I ever go to know (Barry moved to California and we lost touch - if anyone comes across this and can update me please do). Barry could make mirrors of almost any size that was feasible for one person to do and build any kind of telescope. He lived on Sackett Street in Boerum Hill in a giant garage space where he operated his business, creating acrylic frames for artworks to be hung in museums with his living space in the back. It was a wonderland to visit.

As part of the application for the shuttle we had to write lesson plans. So I went to Barry to help me put together something relevant. We came up with a complex plan with Barry doing all the heavy tech lifting, probably our biggest mistake. It took seeing the simplicity of Christa McAuliffe's lesson plans for me to understand why I didn't have a chance - in retrospect Barry may have helped save my life.

I was on a study sabbatical in 1986 and we had gone to Antigua in January. The shuttle was due to take off on the day we were leaving Antigua. TV coverage was potty and I watched the preparations but we had to leave for the airport before the shuttle took off. It wasn't until we were on the plane that we found out what had happened. I spent the entire trip home in a state of shock thinking about what could have been if I had gotten my wish.

When we got home, there was a postcard a friend had sent out a few days earlier: "I'm so sorry you didn't get to go on the shuttle. I know how much you wanted it."


  1. I was teaching fourth grade in a small progressive private school that year. We had sent MacAuliffe letters of support and we were all looking forward to watching the liftoff on a tv that was to be set up in the little auditorium. Most of the student body was scheduled to be watching. I guess it was fortunate for me, but not for my students, that I was hospitalized unexpectedly with pneumonia two days before the flight and missed watching the disaster with my kids. I can only imagine the scene in the auditorium that day. I have never allowed my students to get excited about anything like that again, afraid of the consequences.

  2. Teacher Barbara Morgan flew on board the Enterprise in 2007, and paved the way for three more Educator Astronauts, who have all flown.


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