When NASA selected the first civilian to travel into space, it wasn’t a rock star or a journalist—it was a teacher. January 28, 2011 is the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when seven explorers lost their lives doing something that they believed in. On January 28, 1986, I was a sixth grade student, and I’ll never forget the immediate silence that fell over my middle school cafeteria when the principal announced the event over the PA system during lunch. We all filed back to our classrooms to watch the television coverage for the rest of the school day.
That event solidified in me what had been a growing desire that began when I was four years old and watched Carl Sagan champion the need to explore the stars in his Cosmos series. Ten years after Challenger, I graduated from college with a degree in Physics and Astronomy and took my first job teaching high school in the Bronx. I learned more science that first year of teaching, and found more inspiration trying to help my students’ explore their own questions, than I had ever considered possible.
In the wake of September 11, 2001, NASA reached out to New York City students and offered 52 student experiment modules that would travel on a Space Shuttle mission. I found myself working with a group of NYC middle school students to help them develop their own collection of experiments that we would pack and send off to be launched into space. The Space Shuttle became our classroom. As we watched the Space Shuttle carry our experiments into orbit on January 16, 2003, I finally felt like I was playing a small role in space exploration. This was mission STS-107, and it tragically would be the last flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated on reentry into the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.
As I faced the loss of another Space Shuttle, I found myself on the other side of sixth grade. Now responsible for helping a large group of sixth graders try to understand the enormity of what had happened, I reconnected with my Challenger experience. I found new inspiration in the words of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, NH who was one of the seven crew members lost on Challenger—“I touch the future. I teach.”