There were seven people aboard the NASA space shuttle Challenger when it exploded in the sky over Cape Canaveral 25 years ago. So why is it Christa McAuliffe is the only name most of us remember? She wasn't the only woman on the shuttle. Not the only minority. She wasn't even the only parent on board.
A total of 11 children lost a mom or dad on that January day in 1986. But it's McAuliffe we remember because she was a mom and a school teacher, a woman being hurled into space to become the face of NASA's new Teacher in Space program. If it weren't for the kids, she wouldn't have been there.
That alone has earned McAuliffe a certain extra respect beyond the human response to the deaths of her six crewmates, Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, commander; Navy Commander Michael J. Smith, pilot; Ronald E. McNair, Air Force Lt. Col. Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik, all mission specialists; and Gregory B. Jarvis, a payload specialist. They were scientists doing a job who were sadly taken from this earth much too soon. But her work as an every woman who just wanted to help some kids has made McAuliffe into a martyr (and deservedly so).
As parents, we tend to say "I'd do anything for my kids." Just look at the responses to the Ohio woman, Kelley Williams-Bolar, who faked her residency papers to get her kids into a better school district. The people fighting most fiercely for her vindication are parents who say it's a parent's duty to go the extra mile.
McAuliffe was that parent. A social studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire before her death, she taught a host of kids who went on to become teachers themselves, inspired by Mrs. McAuliffe. No surprise -- they make sure there's a McAuliffe section in their own curricula. And then there's the school named in her honor, a place where students practice "astronaut skills" in science class. She is quite literally synonymous today with educating our youth.
And then there are her own kids: Caroline is a pre-school teacher, Scott brings marine ecology to the masses in the form of scientific outreach. They live quiet, everyday, good American lives, save for when the media comes knocking on yet another Challenger anniversary. In short, they're the type of kids every parent wants to raise.
It's kids like Scott and Caroline McAuliffe, the graduates of Concord High School, the students at Christa McAuliffe Middle School, that make her stand out even today in our minds. Because in her, we saw the future.
Image via NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr