New Hampshire high-school teacher Christa McAuliffe was the first private citizen in space. After the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight on January 28, 1986, Christa’s mother, Grace Corrigan, vowed to keep her mission alive.
The last time most people saw Grace Corrigan, she was looking skyward, her husband Ed beside her, in the bitter cold of a Florida morning, January 28, 1986. When Space Shuttle Challenger roared off the launch pad with six astronauts and their daughter Christa McAuliffe–a Concord, New Hampshire, high-school teacher and the first private citizen selected to experience space flight–aboard, Grace Corrigan was gripped with fear and pride and hope. All of those emotions tumbled out on her face in the cold, her cheeks brushed by her white fur coat, as she strained to follow the rocket. Then Mission Control announced, “Go at throttle up”–and, a heartbeat later, the sky erupted.
No picture captured the anguish of that moment more than the image of Grace and Ed Corrigan, holding each other, searching those chaotic clouds of billowing white smoke against the achingly blue sky. She is crying and in shock, and still you see the will to keep something together, to not believe what she’s seeing, to not believe the words her husband chokes out: “She’s gone. … She’s really gone.”
And now I sit facing Grace Corrigan, with Christa’s official NASA portrait on the wall behind me. “It just doesn’t seem possible that it’s 25 years. But it is,” she says. We’re in the living room of the home where she and her husband raised five children, in a family neighborhood in Framingham, Massachusetts. It’s a late-summer morning, and through the picture windows her lawn bustles with birds and squirrels. I see a wall covered with photographs, so many it’s as though family albums have emptied onto the wall.
Here are Grace’s parents, who died when she was a small child; her grandparents, who raised her; her husband, Ed, who died in 1990; her children; her grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and, of course, her firstborn, Christa: Christa as a baby, as a child, in Girl Scouts, in high school, in college; Christa the young wife, the mother, the teacher; Christa in astronaut garb, the woman who swept a country off its feet.
And there’s a photo of Grace herself, giving a commencement speech at Framingham State College (now University), the school from which both mother and daughter had graduated. “The commencement speech Christa was supposed to give,” Grace says. I look at the photo and ask, “How do you do it?”
She is well into her 80s now, but her voice is rich and animated, her eyes sparkling. I tell her that in the days before this visit, I watched videos of the Challenger on the Internet, and each time I heard “Go at throttle up,” my heart raced, and soon I couldn’t watch it anymore. So I ask, “How do you keep looking at that day?” She’s done that hundreds of times, speaking to thousands of teachers and children, almost within weeks of the day her daughter disappeared from her sight; writing A Journal for Christa; answering reporters’ questions on anniversaries; answering reporters’ questions when the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia died in 2003 (“I’m not doing very well,” she said then); and when Barbara Morgan (Christa’s alternate for the Challenger voyage) completed her successful shuttle mission in 2007.
On this day, for example, she has just come home from Huntsville, Alabama, home of Space Camp, just down the road from where Christa spent part of her training. “I haven’t even unpacked,” she says.
She laughs lightly, and her laugh has the timbre of a delicate bell. She returns every year to Space Camp for the special week when “Teachers of the Year” from across the country and around the world converge to explore the mysteries of space travel. Her speech reminds everyone that her daughter was neither astronaut nor thrill seeker. “I tell them that Christa was a teacher,” she says. “That was the most important job for her. When she came back, she was going to go back to teaching. This was the thrill of a lifetime for her, but she felt it was going to focus on education and that it would get the kids excited.”
I tell her I find it remarkable that she can do this for all these years; I say I doubt I could. She laughs gently. “You know how I do it? I know Christa would say, ‘Hey, Ma, I’m not here. It’s a good message. What did I give my life for? You know, I should be there doing it. I’m not. You can do it.'”
Christa’s mother smiles. “I just feel she was doing so much good for those kids,” she says. “If I can help, just by carrying her message, that’s what she was striving for. If you remember at that time, teachers had a bum rap, and she was trying to make everyone know they were important.” She looks at me with an expression that says, It’s clear why I do this.
“I had a good message,” she adds. “And my husband felt the same way. He did a lot of speaking with me, even though he was so ill. It was something we believed in, and we were doing it for her because she wasn’t there. You know, if we weren’t going to do it, who would? Who would make people stop and think, This is important? School is important. Teachers are important. It was something she just couldn’t finish. And those teachers down in Alabama were so pleased to hear the message. You know, I don’t go looking for it. But if a school calls and wants me to talk, there’s no way I should just sit home, not if I can still carry Christa’s message.”
I ask whether she has ever wanted to just stop, to do as others close to Christa have done, to close the curtain on that time.
“Oh,” Grace says, “in my family, everybody was in pain. I mean everybody. I knew they probably wished I’d just left it alone. But look at it this way: It happened. There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t take it back. So I did what I thought she’d want. Nobody else agreed with me. I didn’t explain myself to anybody. I did what I wanted to do. And Christa would have done what she wanted to do. I haven’t regretted it. I know I helped make people feel good.”
I go with Grace to see the Challenger Learning Center at Framingham State University. The director, Mary Liscombe, was Christa’s college classmate, and the women hug. “I feel Christa on my shoulder every day,” Mary says. She guides me through the center, shows me how students work together in a simulation, landing on Mars and returning to Earth. “There are no failures on these missions,” she says. Later I e-mail her; I ask her what I first asked Christa’s mother.
She wrote back: I, too, wonder how Grace does it. … When Grace is in front of children, she asks them whom they think Christa was flying for. The answer is–for them! Grace touches teachers’ hearts and reminds them to continue to touch the future through the children they teach. Christa lives through her. …
[A colleague] invited Grace and me to her sister-in-law’s funeral. The woman had died when the plane she was traveling in hit the World Trade Center. … Grace and that family shared the bond of having lost loved ones in a tragic and public way. The family surrounded her and embraced her. She was able to comfort them in ways no one else could. They drew strength from her and felt her love and gave love in return. I was so taken by the scene, I almost forgot to breathe. …
I’ve spent the day with another classmate of Christa’s. I was telling her that you’d asked how Grace “does it.” We were both thinking how anniversaries cause us to stop and reflect and remember. Grace does so much more than “just carrying on” in the face of tragedy. I can only hope that she draws love and strength from everyone she meets. Grace epitomizes the graces of forgiveness and love. Maybe it’s just as simple as that.
Before I say goodbye, Grace tells me a story that she thinks will help me understand. “The ones I remember most are the ones where the kids are really deprived,” she says. “There was a school in New Jersey. It’s a tough, tough school. They were a little scared [about] how I would be received. And yet …” Here she stops, and her eyes shine: “… they were the most wonderful audience. The auditorium was packed. The kids didn’t let out a peep. The teachers had taken my book, and each grade had taken a part and done projects. I remember this part so vividly. I was talking about questions children had asked me, and in that big auditorium it was so quiet I heard a little voice: ‘She’s talking about my question!’
“When I drove away, I said, ‘Thank you, Christa, thank you.'”
To learn more about how Christa McAuliffe’s mission continues, visit the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH (starhop.com), and the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center in Framingham, MA (christa.org).
Yankee Classic: Christa’s Shadow
First Published: January/February 2011