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Jan. 31, 2011

The Ultimate Field Trip

by Krista Dyson

Click to enlarge images

January 28, 1986 fell on an usually chilly Tuesday. Temperatures in Central Florida were close to or below freezing the previous night. At the Kennedy Space Center, the space shuttle Challenger sat on launch pad 39B in a launch facility draped with icicles.

Space Shuttle Challenger on Icy Launch Pad 39B

Photo NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

The cold weather created some controversy, but the shuttle mission with the first teacher in space had already been delayed several times. It was go for launch for STS-51L that fateful January morning. The mission ended one minute and thirteen seconds after launch. Later investigators determined that Challenger experienced a failure in an O-ring seal on a solid rocket booster which caused the orbiter's destruction.

If you've heard nothing else, you've heard that on board Challenger that day was a social studies teacher named Christa McAuliffe. She had trained for months to take this flight - a flight she called "the ultimate field trip." She submitted an application, along with tens of thousands of other hopeful teachers, to work and train side-by-side with NASA astronauts. The plan for the Teacher in Space program was for her to teach six science lessons from the shuttle as it orbited above the Earth. Because a shuttle mission is meticulously planned in advance, there are several videos of Christa practicing these presentations in a replica of the shuttle's crew quarters. Teachers and interested students can view Challenger's "lost lessons" and watch Christa's videos on the Challenger Center website. The information in these lessons is as relevant today as it was at the time. Experiments in microgravity can help us think about science in radically different ways when we compare our results to how things normally work in the grips of Earth's gravity.

Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan

Barbara Morgan (left) and Christa McAuliffe (right) Photo NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

Not many people realize that in 2007 NASA did eventually send a former teacher into space. Barbara Morgan was Christa McAuliffe's backup through the Teacher in Space program, training side-by-side with Christa and serving as part of the Challenger crew on the ground as a Payload Specialist for the ill-fated mission. After the accident, Morgan assumed McAuliffe's duties of the Teacher in Space program and once the program concluded she went back to teaching. In 1998, she applied to NASA to continue her astronaut training, and was selected to fly on the shuttle Endeavor during mission STS-118 to the International Space Station as a full-time astronaut and Mission Specialist.

To commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the loss of the Challenger and its crew, our school's art club students created a mural to depict their hopes and wishes inspired by Christa McAuliffe. Funny thing about their mural, though. They didn't draw a teacher in space. These sixth, seventh and eighth graders chose instead to paint a mural showing students in space.

That's something to think about as we reflect on the loss of the Challenger and her crew - where the teacher goes, the students will inevitably want to follow.

How about you? Knowing the risks of space travel and exploration would you want to take the ultimate field trip off planet Earth?

About Krista Dyson

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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