― Christa McAuliffe – Teacher and Astronaut, from Concord, New Hampshire
Tragically, the Space Shuttle Challenger (mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of all seven crew members, including teacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe. It was a heartbreaking scene captured on live television for the millions who watched the launch. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida at 11:38 EST (16:38 UTC). The fate of the vehicle began to unravel after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRBs aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces promptly broke up the orbiter. (wikipedia)
I watched in horror as the spectacle occurred on television. I was in my fourth year as an elementary principal in the Amarillo Independent School District in Amarillo, Texas. It was a shocking scene that immediately produced turbulent emotions. Countless educators across the country had joined in enthusiastic anticipation of the incredible experience that awaited this first teacher-astronaut in the time leading up to the actual launch. I was an educator who sensed the importance of a teacher granted the privilege to participate in the ongoing process of discovery sponsored by NASA. The fatal accident was received like a collective punch to the stomach to all those who watched those 73 seconds of flight and the silence of the television announcers covering the launch and the horror that soon followed when it became apparent that something was terribly wrong.
Fifteen years later NASA experienced another tragic mishap when the Space Shuttle Columbia burst apart on February 1, 2003 while reentering earth’s orbit, killing all seven crew members.
The loss of Columbia was a result of damage sustained during launch when a piece of foam insulation the size of a small briefcase broke off from the space shuttle external tank (the 'ET' main propellant tank) under the aerodynamic forces of launch. The debris struck the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the Shuttle's thermal protection system (TPS), which shields the vehicle from the intense heat generated from atmospheric compression during re-entry. (wikipedia)
This last October, many years after moving back to New York, I returned for a brief visit to Amarillo. At that time I was again reminded of the potential influence a teacher can make as well as the sacrifices made by those determined and courageous adventurers who seek to stretch the boundaries of our known world through discoveries. Not long after the 1986 Challenger disaster and well before the 2003 Columbia tragedy, astronaut Rick Husband commemorated the loss of the Challenger crew and reminded children who were mourning the death of Christa McAuliffe, America's teacher, that progress and discovery are often the result of courage and sacrifice. The price of advancement can at times exact a heavy toll, but we must sustain our commitment if we expect to improve life.
The truth, and irony, in those words were never more true than when my plane touched down in Amarillo and successfully landed at Rick Husband International Airport, the airport named in memory of Amarillo native Rick Husband, commander of the ill fated Space Shuttle Columbia.