MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Twenty-five years ago today was supposed to be a day of celebration. The United States had long ago won the space race with the Soviet Union. And by the time the space shuttle Challenger was set to launch in 1986, space missions seemed -well, almost routine. Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was chosen to be the first teacher in space on that mission. And in the days before the launch, she was asked if she was worried.
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Ms. CHRISTA MCAULIFFE (Former Teacher): No. No, actually not - probably because reality hasn't absolutely set in yet. But I really see the shuttle program as a safe program. You know, when we watch it go up, it's just - it's a thrill. But look at what happened in the last launch. At three seconds, a computer shut down because one of the secondary systems wasn't working. I felt really good about that, especially now.
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NORRIS: Now, it's important to remember that these days, you can watch live events as they happen - on your computer or your cell phone. But back in 1986, that kind of access was still novel. And so it was with great excitement that students and teachers in schools nationwide watched the Challenger launch on a special feed provided by NASA.
In Concord, New Hampshire, a pre-launch party was held at McAuliffe's school. Katherine Hogue(ph) was a student at Concord High.
Ms. KATHERINE HOGUE: We were down in the cafeteria where there was a TV, in the auditorium there was a TV, there were TVs in classrooms. People were holding balloons and crowded around televisions. It was a very exciting time.
NORRIS: Physics teacher Jay Godfrey was in the auditorium. It was packed with students.
Mr. JAY GODFREY (Teacher): You know, we're doing the countdown. Everybody was just ecstatic, yelling and screaming and - go, Christa. It was such a high point to see the thing finally lift off.
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Unidentified Announcer: Three, two, one. And lift-off. Lift-off of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.
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NORRIS: For 73 seconds after the launch of the Challenger, the party went on, both in schools and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where friends and family of the crew were watching and cheering, including both of McAuliffe's parents.
But then something happened, and there was a lot of uncertainty. In Concord, Jay Godfrey at first didn't understand what he was seeing.
Mr. GODFREY: I remember looking at the picture and seeing, it was actually the solid rocket boosters go off. I go, boy, that's kind of unusual. I don't really remember seeing that before. And I said, well, I'm sure it's OK. But then there was a teacher named Robert - was his first name - yelled, shut up! He was sitting up in the balcony. And I go, oh no.
NORRIS: Oh, no. People were starting to figure out what had happened as they were watching. The main external fuel tank ignited and then disintegrated in a giant fireball. The Challenger was torn apart, and fell 48,000 feet to sea. The crew died on impact. Again, there was still a lot of confusion. In the stands at Kennedy Space Center, some were still cheering as the rocket boosters veered wildly away from the giant plume of smoke in the sky. Then the cheers turned to screams as it dawned on people that something was seriously wrong.
Ms. HOGUE: And I remember thinking that there couldn't be anything wrong, this couldn't be happening, and running down the hall to go check with teachers and look at other TVs and somehow the disbelief, you know, that's impossible to believe.
Mr. GODFREY: Yeah, it was utter disbelief. This could not be happening to us. No way. First flight with a civilian aboard. It's not going to happen, couldn't possibly happen.
NORRIS: Eventually, it became all too clear what had happened. And the nation mourned as the tragedy was replayed over and over and over again on the news. When President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation after the tragedy, he paid special attention to the children in classrooms who had watched triumph turn to tragedy in only a few seconds.
President RONALD REAGAN: I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave. A Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
NORRIS: Watching the Challenger that day from her spot at the Kennedy Space Center was Barbara Morgan. She was the backup to Christa McAuliffe in the Teacher in Space program. She eventually joined NASA as a full-time astronaut and in 2007, made it to space on the Endeavor shuttle. I talked to Morgan earlier, and I asked her about her memories of that day.
Ms. BARBARA MORGAN (Teacher, Astronaut): That day, for me, was like everyone else in the country and around the rest of the world. It was such a sad, sad tragedy. But what I like to remember are the wonderful smiles and enthusiasm of our friends on the Challenger crew as they were heading out to the Astrovan. They were on a mission; it was a very important mission. And they were very proud to be flying in space and exploring for all of us.
NORRIS: When you were going through the training for this, filling out all that paperwork, did you consider the danger?
Ms. MORGAN: You know, what I was considering - and I think all of us were considering - were this tremendous opportunity to bring the world to our students, and to bring our students out into the world. You know, while we never expected anything like that to happen, and space flight at that time was starting to seem pretty routine, our wonderful commander, Dick Scobee, spent some time talking to Christa and me about the risks.
NORRIS: Earlier this week, we heard President Obama say something interesting in the State of the Union Address. And he said that this is this generation's Sputnik moment - referring to a period of time when America really tried to rev into high gear to compete against the Soviets after they pulled out ahead of us in the space race.
For a generation of children that are sitting in classrooms today, how do you get them excited about exploration and space travel?
Ms. MORGAN: That's a great question. And you get them excited about it by involving them. Space exploration - there are so many questions that need to be answered for us to be able to continue moving forward. And questions are a great key for education because curiosity is really, what drives learning. And if we can engage our students through their curiosity, nobody has to force it on anybody. Those students will be engaged, and they will be helping out.
NORRIS: How should people honor this anniversary?
Ms. MORGAN: You know, I would hope that we honor them by keeping the future open, by looking deep within ourselves for our curiosities. And I also hope that we'll honor it by making sure that we have a robust space program that keeps moving us all forward.
NORRIS: Barbara, thank you very much.
Ms. MORGAN: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: And we should remember that Christa McAuliffe was not the only one on board the Challenger 25 years ago. The six other members of the crew that day were mission specialists Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair; payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; pilot Michael Smith; and Commander Dick Scobee.