73 Seconds and a Lifetime of Learning

Yesterday, as the world remembered the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986, I reflected about the impact it — and the entire Space Shuttle program — had on my life. I also wondered to what degree it has influenced the direction my life has taken.

Certainly, the January 27, 1967 death of the Apollo 1 crew and the February 1, 2003 loss of Space Shuttle Columbia also impacted me, but the Challenger disaster has affected me more. I think it had a lot to do with my age at the time and the context in which the events unfolded.

STS-51-L-Patch.svgJust 73 seconds into its flight Challenger disintegrated, taking with it seven STS-51L crew members:  Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and, most poignantly for me, Christa McAuliffe.

That morning I was in the “early bird session” of my 6th grade class when a classmate burst in shouting about what happened. Since he was a bit of a troublemaker nobody believed him at first.

I still wish it was another one of his jokes.

Aside from it being my first “where were you when?” moment, I was going to give a speech about Christa McAuliffe. She had planned to present six recorded lessons (plus two live lessons from space) for elementary kids like me.  How cool was that, right? I felt like I was a part of this Space Shuttle mission; not just watching it.

Due to the circumstances, I was permitted to change my topic, and instead discussed the events that transpired; I think it was a means of coping to some degree. This was the days before YouTube and digital devices, so I remember recreating the “Challenger, go with throttle up” command.

Fortunately, the curriculum for those recorded and live lessons were reconstructed by NASA in 2007 for Barbara Morgan — McAuliffe’s backup.

Morgan was about to fly aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour (which launched into orbit for STS-118 on August 7, 2007), and wanted to perform some of McAuliffe’s lessons. Her role was different than McAuliffe’s however; she was trained as a full fledged member of the crew, with teaching as one small part of her role. According to an article on Biography.com:

Aboard Endeavour, she was load master, responsible for the 5,000 pounds of supplies that was transferred to the station. She also operated the shuttle and station robotic arms during three planned spacewalks. On the seventh day of the mission, she was scheduled to participate in an educational interactive video broadcast with students gathered at the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise. Morgan planned to teach some of the same lessons that McAuliffe was supposed to teach more than 20 years previous, as part of a wider curriculum.

Video of Morgan aboard Endeavour with Scott Kelly —  who is currently the Commander of the International Space Station on a one year mission — follows:

Using archival footage, notes and whatever documents that could be found, NASA reassembled the lesson plans and made them available in a PDF document titled “Challenger’s Lost Lessons.”

Below is a  summary of McAuliffe’s planned recorded lessons; they are explained further in the article “Christa McAuliffe’s ‘Lost Challenger Lessons’: Photos.”

  • Hydroponics: demonstrate a closed environment in which you could grow plants in microgravity.
  • Magnetism: show how magnetism works in space using a compass, a bar magnet, and a container full of iron fillings. Watch a video of McAuliffe demonstrating this lesson prior to the launch.
  • Newton’s Law of Motion: explain Newton’s laws of motion, especially the 3rd law where an action causes an equal and opposite reaction.
  • Bubbles (Effervescence): demonstrate how microgravity affects bubbles.
  • Chromatography: put ink on a piece of paper, hang it up, add water, then watch the water dissolve the ink.
  • Simple Machines: answer the question: “What are the applications in space for simple machines like the wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, wedge, and pulley?”

The two planned live lessons were:

  • The Ultimate Field Trip: a tour of the Space Shuttle, asking students to think about living and learning aboard the Space Shuttle.
  • Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going, Why? This lesson was designed to: 1. explain some advantages and disadvantages of manufacturing in a microgravity environment; 2. describe spinoffs and other benefits which have evolved from the space program; 3. list ways in which the modular Space Station would change the lives of human beings.

Despite the tragic loss of Challenger, McAuliffe’s lessons lived on (in part) through Barbara Morgan’s historic trip on Endeavour. The innovation and determination both displayed inspired countless lives, including mine. While I don’t teach science, I was indirectly influenced to become an educator by McAuliffe and the Space Shuttle program.