Christa McAuliffe: Honoring an American Teacher and Astronaut
Written by: Erin Robinson
The year is 1961, and President John F. Kennedy is yearning for the United States to land on the moon. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Kennedy later states in a 1962 speech, “We choose to go to the moon...not because [it] is easy, but because [it is] hard.”
In 1969, American astronauts set foot on the moon, and the rest is history. NASA starts the Space Shuttle program, which provides valuable scientific knowledge; and being an astronaut becomes the coolest job anyone could have.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announces the Teacher in Space program, which would select a teacher to become a part of a space shuttle crew and be the first civilian to fly into space. New Hampshire social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe learns of the program and becomes one of over eleven thousand applicants, and in 1985, she is selected as the teacher who will go to space. NASA official Alan Ladwig said “she had an infectious enthusiasm” which showed through her teaching career and the selection process.
McAuliffe planned to teach lessons from space that would include basic science experiments and talks about the space shuttle and space travel. She also wanted to keep a diary “like a woman on the Conestoga wagons pioneering the West.” Her positive attitude and appearances on TV showed the nation the importance of the Teacher In Space project. On The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, she said, “If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on.”
Early in 1986, McAuliffe boarded the Challenger space shuttle with the rest of the astronauts on the mission. Because of the popular attention McAuliffe brought, many people were watching the launch, including many children and students. 73 seconds after the rocket took off, it destroyed itself, breaking apart in the air and tragically killing every crew member in the mission. President Kennedy’s words had never rung truer, as the astronauts had just done the hardest thing anyone could do: dying in the pursuit of science.
The impact of the Challenger disaster was felt by all of America. New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST Robotics, worked with his dad Jack Kamen, a comics illustrator, to create a design for a commemorative coin with McAuliffe’s portrait and Jack’s art on the back. He then worked with New Hampshire’s congressional representatives to introduce a bill in the federal House of Representatives that would direct the Treasury to mint those coins, honoring McAuliffe’s legacy.
350,000 silver dollar coins would be minted throughout 2020 and sold with a surcharge that would be donated to FIRST for “the purpose of engaging and inspiring young people.” Dean Kamen advocates for the passage of this bill through what he calls “Dean’s homework,” his calls to action in speeches to FIRST students, parents and mentors.
Currently, the Christa McAuliffe Commemorative Coin Act of 2019 has been introduced in both the House and the Senate. If you want to honor McAuliffe’s memory and achievement, I have created mcauliffecoinact.com to enable interested citizens to learn more about the bill and contact their US representatives.
As of the writing of this article, the House bill has 300+ cosponsors, which shows that about three-fourths of the House supports the bill while the Senate bill only has three. You can contact your US representatives and senators and tell them to cosponsor these bills. Together, we can remember the legacy of an American tragically killed in the service of education and look to the future as her memorial inspires the next generation.