Today NASA marked 25 years since the January 28, 1986 loss of Challenger and its seven astronauts. Seven was the total number of the original astronauts of the Mercury program, several of whom would continue through Gemini and Apollo, and would make it to the moon. One of them, Virgil Grissom, the second American in space, died in the only previous fatal accident of the space program. But that had happened on the launch pad. The Challenger seven were the first to be lost in flight--though they hadn't even yet reached beyond the atmosphere. The disaster began little more than a minute after liftoff.
What America learned that week was how different this crew was from those original astronauts. The original seven had been military, fighter jocks and test pilots. They were all male and white. This crew had a pilot that fit that profile--Dick Scobee, flight captain. But it also had Judith Resnik, the second American woman and first Jewish American in space; Ronald McNair, the second African American; and Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American in space.
And Christa McAuliffe, a civilian, the star of the mission as the "first teacher in space." She brought a lot of attention to this flight, and so a lot of school children were watching. For them and the many more who saw the footage later, this became one of those anchoring events of a lifetime. (Though there were and remain misconceptions about what happened and why.) It was worst for the children in her New Hampshire school, not all that far from Portland. This day has special meaning for them.
For awhile afterwards, Christa McAuliffe's sacrifice elevated the role of teacher in the national consciousness. Her words "I touch the future--I teach" became a bumper sticker, and are still famous and inspirational. They should be a national guide.