By Joseph Neese - email
HOBE SOUND, FL (RNN) - Twenty-five years later, a nation pauses to remember the tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded a mere 73 seconds after its lift off from a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center.
The Challenger marked the first time that a civilian, Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, was to make the journey into space.
McAuliffe, the best remembered of the crew, was selected from more than 11,000 applicants nationwide as the primary candidate for NASA's Teacher in Space Project.
This created a newfound public interest in the program, as a teacher prepared to lecture from the world's ultimate classroom.
Today, her memory is best remembered in the hard work and dedication of America's teachers, like the Pine School's Shawna Gallagher Vega, who has followed in McAuliffe's footsteps as she strives to teach in the most memorable ways possible, meeting each challenge with joy.
On this 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, Vega, a social studies teacher, talked about McAuliffe with the Raycom News Network and how her legacy lives on through ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things.
Question: The challenger accident occurred on Jan. 28, 1986. You would have been 1 year and 8 months old at the time. Do you have any recollection of it? What did you hear about this growing up? Did your parents or teachers ever speak to you about it?
Shawna Gallagher Vega: I don't have any memories of the event itself - I was a little too young for that! - but I recall always knowing about it, even from a young age. I remember the early anniversaries of the event, and of course the space program was a big part of the culture growing up in Florida. I remember hearing about Christa McAuliffe in particular, a teacher and mother, a civilian chosen to teach from space. I remember people talking about how tragic the accident was, but with great challenges unfortunately come great risks.
Oddly enough, though, I think I hear more about it now as a teacher, even though it occurred 25 years ago. In my U.S. history classes, the first assignment my students complete is an interview of their parents about a historical event they remember. So many of my students' parents were kids at the time of the Challenger accident. One of them was at Cape Canaveral with his third grade class when it happened.
Q: NASA was hoping to generate more interest in its space endeavors through its Teacher in Space Project, of which McAuiliffe was its first participant. She made numerous promotional appearances prior to liftoff. Do you think it's important to maintain interest in space during these increasingly global times? Do you teach your children about space in any of your history or government classes?
SGV: Absolutely, it's important to maintain interest in space. As a history teacher, I always think of how amazing it would have been to witness certain historical events, and the moon landing is right up there. When former President John F. Kennedy said America would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, some people thought he was crazy, but we made it happen as a country. We do big things as Americans - as JFK said, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard." In my U.S. history classes, we cover the space race extensively, especially in the context of the Cold War, and we watch the moon landing. I always tell my students to imagine what it would have been like to watch that live. A man on the moon for the first time! It was an awe-inspiring feat, one that excited the world and united our nation at the end of the turbulent '60s.
Q: McAuliffe was supposed to have actually taught lessons from space. Do you think this would have been the ultimate classroom for a teacher?
SGV: Without question. As a teacher, you're always looking for ways to keep students on the edge of their seats - ways to move away from rote memorization toward inspiring kids with lessons they'll really remember. You can't get much better than teaching from space.
Q: McAuliffe is quoted as saying the following: "You have to dream. We all have to dream. Dreaming is OK. Imagine me teaching from space, all over the world, touching so many people's lives. That's a teacher's dream! I have a vision of the world as a global village, a world without boundaries. Imagine a history teacher making history!" What do you think this says about her as a teacher? Do you strive for such a perspective in your classroom?
SGV: I think Christa McAuliffe's quote encapsulates what any good history teacher tries to teach her students - that history is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Students really have to absorb that lesson to appreciate the subject. I definitely strive to create an atmosphere that encourages that way of thinking in my classroom.
Q: You have many similarities to McAuliffe. She also had a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in education. She was born in Boston while her father was attending Boston College, where you received both of your degrees. She was a social studies teacher to high schoolers. She died young in Florida, where you now live. How do you feel connected to her? In a way, are all teachers like her?
SGV: I think all teachers want to inspire students by their own example, and that's Christa McAuliffe's great link to us all. Personally, I feel most connected to her aspirations - to her desire to teach in the most memorable, beneficial way possible.
Q: What do you think is McAuliffe's legacy, and why is it important?
SGV: I think Christa's legacy is that of an ordinary American becoming an extraordinary part of history. To be selected as the first teacher in space was a remarkable achievement. Her death was tragic, but I think it reminded Americans of the bravery of our own spirit. When Ronald Reagan consoled the nation, he said the spirit of McAuliffe and the others on board was a spirit that said, "Give me a challenge, and I'll meet it with joy." That's the American way.
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