It happened 30 years ago tomorrow. I was nine years old and in the fourth-grade.
The space shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center with a most famous astronaut on board — Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.
Our class was supposed to have been in the auditorium to watch the shuttle launch. But, noisy boys had made us late. And by the time we got downstairs, it had already happened.
As we made our way into the auditorium, a kindergarten teacher was running in from the other door. She was yelling, “It blew up.” I was confused and didn’t understand her outburst. And then, I’m embarrassed to admit, that my first thought was confusion about her concern. In my mind, she didn’t know any of the astronauts, so why was she so emotional?
Surprisingly, it was this accident that sparked my interest in space. I became intrigued, curious, passionate, and not fearful. Even though I had seen the worst, had seen how lives could be lost, I wanted to be an astronaut.
Christa McAuliffe had showed me I could. She was a “regular person.” A teacher. A mom. Someone who was a good person and liked learning. That was me.
I wanted to do what she wanted to do. I wanted to go into space and share what I learned with others. I wanted to share a message of peace and hope and beauty and wonder with those back on Earth.
I saw space flight as an opportunity for humans to get a “do-over.” To try and do things right, to fix the wrongs and mistakes that had been made on Earth.
Looking back, I’m honestly quite surprised that I wanted to be an astronaut for as long as I did. (It was my goal until high school, when I volunteered in an elementary school classroom and had a special connection with the kids I helped. Then I became passionate about teaching).
Christa McAuliffe used to say, “I touch the future. I teach.” And I did that for twelve years.
But now it’s my son’s turn to dream. To tell me he wants to walk on the Moon. That he wants to do a Michael Jackson-style moonwalk on the Moon. And I tell him to go for it. I tell him that he can do whatever he wants to do. I tell him I believe in him.
Because that was Christa’s other message — “Reach for the stars.”