Teacher Recalls Class Watching Challenger Explode

Ellen McKinney was a first-grade teacher in McCall, Idaho, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. She teaches second grade now at the same school, which was renamed the Barbara Morgan Elementary School for the first teacher to go into space. McKinney talks to Renee Montagne about the day Challenger exploded.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Twenty-five years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the air just over a minute after liftoff.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The seven people onboard included Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space.

INSKEEP: And students in classrooms across America were glued to TV sets that morning.

MONTAGNE: No one thought anything bad would happen. It was an adventure. So teachers made a special point of showing the lift-off to their classes. One of those was first-grade teacher Ellen McKinney. She still teaches elementary school in McCall, Idaho, and joined us to talk about that time. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ELLEN MCKINNEY (Teacher): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Leading up to the launch, what were you doing with your kids to prepare them for what was to be a memorable event for them?

Ms. MCKINNEY: It was a very exciting time. We were working to learn as much as we could. We experimented with toys in space. We watched training videos that have been provided to us through NASA. We played with rockets, we had stuff exploding. It was just a really fun time.

MONTAGNE: Christa McAuliffe was the first regular person to go up in space, and sort of perfect that she would be a teacher, because it would bring in a way all the kids along with her. Speaking before the launch - we have a clip of tape of her here - she seemed to be thinking really more about the teaching profession than the fact that she was going up in space.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. CHRISTA MCAULIFFE (Teacher): I was delighted that a teacher was chosen as the first space participant because there are so many of us who have daily contact with people, and that was a very exciting thing for me, to think that teachers were finally recognized as the good communicators that they are and that they reach so many students.

MONTAGNE: Did that give an extra glamour, if you will, to being a teacher?

Ms. MCKINNEY: It did. I think it brought recognition to something that we hold near and dear to ourselves, and Christa was just such an exemplary person, and she went as a teacher.

MONTAGNE: That tape comes from a profile that I had prepared to go on the air the night of the launch, and it turned from a profile of the crew into a remembrance. Take us back to that morning.

Ms. MCKINNEY: We had divided the 600 kids in our school into half of them in the library, half of them in the gym - had television monitors at that time. And when the T-minus started, there were cheers and exuberance, and we counted down.

And then it was silent. We stopped talking about what was happening. We had been saying, now watch for the solid rocket boosters to come off, we're going to be seeing that any minute. And then they weren't happening and then the explosion, and the kids quieted down. And we needed to tell them something's gone wrong. And they kept asking, you know, are those people dead? And we had to tell them yes. And that was probably one of the hardest things.

MONTAGNE: What lessons do you take 25 years later from the shuttle disaster for the young kids that you teach? I mean, do you still talk about it to your classrooms and do you think about it yourself?

Ms. MCKINNEY: Yes. We just finished a space study in the class I teach now, which is second grade. Of course, one of the questions was, and always is, is it dangerous, is there a risk? And there's always a child who will bring up that yes, there was an accident, but there are inherent risks involved and always will be. Students understand that. They can understand having dreams and hopes, and when they see that people are willing to take risks, they're more willing to take risks, like in their learning, and in adventure and in hope, but understanding that there's a line that you have to make a choice on.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us and sharing your memories with us.

Ms. MCKINNEY: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Second grade teacher Ellen McKinney, who was watching the Challenger shuttle lift off with her class when it exploded 25 years ago today.

And one more note on the elementary school in McCall, Idaho where she works. It was a teacher from that school who eventually did become the first teacher in space. That was Barbara Morgan, who went up in 2007, after applying many years earlier to go up in the Challenger. In that application Morgan wrote: I want to get some stardust on me.

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