“Take me out to the black. Tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back…” — Joss Whedon, The Ballad of Serenity
by Chris Tobias
If you’re a space enthusiast like us, the days between January 27 and February 1 are a difficult stretch. That’s because each year we’re forced to observe a hat trick of anniversaries we wish we didn’t have to see on the calendar– a somber series of dates that remind us that it is indeed a rough road that leads to the stars.
This past Wednesday, January 27, was the anniversary of the flash fire on the launch pad during a test in 1967 that claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger Chaffee. And last Thursday, January 28, marked the 30th anniversary of the day on which Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during launch, killing astronauts Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik, as well as Christa McAuliffe, a New England school teacher who was to have become the first educator in space as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. This Monday, February 1, will be thirteen years since Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere and astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon perished.
Here at Take Back the Sky, we’ve written at length about these tragedies and the heroes we lost as a result of them. (If you’d like to read more, check out our archived blogposts from October 2012 and January 2015.) This year however, we’d like to honor the memory of all of these brave men and women by taking a look at the groundbreaking work that one of them was to have done out in the black.
In today’s world of YouTube and live online streaming, we’ve become rather used to astronauts on board the International Space Station broadcasting mini-lessons and Q&A sessions to school children around the world, but in 1986, it was still unprecedented.
Had the Challenger‘s crew been able to complete its mission, it would have been educator Christa McAuliffe whom the world would remember as the first person to teach science lessons to children around the world while in orbit. As history would have it though, the lessons that she prepared for the nation and the world’s children were never conducted.
In addition to two live lessons that were to be televised on PBS on Day 6 of the mission, McAuliffe had planned to conduct a number of demonstrations during the flight. These filmed demonstrations, now known as the six “lost lessons,” would have been distributed after the mission as part of various educational packages.
Although Christa McAuliffe never had the chance to teach children from space, the world’s teachers can still present her lost lessons thanks to the work of the Challenger Center. Back in the 80’s, NASA educational specialist Bob Mayfield wrote descriptions of McAuliffe’s six planned Challenger activities. These synopses, along with videos of mock-up planning practices of the activities and zero-gravity demonstrations, help the teachers of today understand and present McAuliffe’s lessons. Scripts of the six experiments include a materials list, set-up instructions and step-by-step instructions for teachers to use in the classroom with their students. With these resources, teachers can replicate the work of a true hero in their field, a woman who once described her work aboard Challenger as “the ultimate field trip” and said, “If I can get some student interested in science, if I can show members of the general public what’s going on up there in the space program, then my job’s been done.”
Teachers who wish to make use of Christa McAuliffe’s lost lessons can download them directly from the Challenger Center. Those who do will give their students not only a unique way to learn about science, but also a window into the past, allowing them to connect in a special way to important persons and events in American history. If you are an educator who teaches science, I urge you to consider incorporating these lost lessons into your curriculum, and if you are a grade-school student (or the parent or older sibling of one), I encourage you to let your school’s science teachers know that they are available and tell them where they can be found.
McAuliffe famously said, “I touch the future. I teach.” Thanks to the Challenger Center and her lost lessons, that statement is still true today, more than thirty years after she left us.
Ad astra per aspera…