On August 27, 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced that NASA was launching a Teacher in Space Project. Some 11,000 educators applied for the opportunity to fly on board a space shuttle flight, including 36-year-old Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire.

McAuliffe, who was Arab American of Lebanese descent, saw the opportunity as a way to promote her profession and advocate for teachers. She was thrilled to learn the following year that NASA had picked her to be the first teacher in space.

“It's not often that a teacher is at a loss for words,” McAuliffe said after Vice President George H.W. Bush announced her selection on July 19, 1985. Explaining she had become close friends with the other finalists in the program, she said, “When that shuttle goes up, there might be one body, but there's gonna be 10 souls that I'm taking with me.”

On January 28, 1986, students in schools across the country gathered by TVs to watch McAuliffe take off in the Challenger space shuttle. The excitement turned to alarm and horror when the shuttle exploded in the sky 73 seconds into its flight.

The disaster killed all seven crew members, NASA officials eventually faced a damning investigation and students and teachers were devastated by the tragedy. But eventually, American teachers did make it to space, with McAuliffe's pioneering role in the original NASA program as inspiration.

Choosing the First Teacher in Space

Christa McAuliffe was not NASA’s first nontraditional astronaut. By the time she stepped onto the Challenger, NASA had already given political figures seats on space shuttle flights in a bid for publicity and funding. Senator Jake Garn, the Saudi prince Sultan ibn Salman Al Saud and Congressman Bill Nelson (who became NASA administrator in 2021) all went to space on shuttle missions between April 1985 and January 1986.

With the Teacher in Space Project, NASA sought to renew public interest in the U.S. space program—which had lost popularity and funding since the 1969 moon landing—by sending an “ordinary” American into space.

As an applicant, McAuliffe worried that she didn’t have a strong enough scientific background or as many impressive achievements as the other candidates. But according to Kevin Cook, author of The Burning Blue: The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA's Challenger Disaster, that wasn’t necessarily what NASA was looking for.

“NASA was looking for someone who would get the public excited about space again,” he says. “They don’t need the most brilliant high school science teacher to go on a space shuttle—they’ve got scientists all over the place. They needed someone who, as one of the participants told me…came across well on the Johnny Carson show.”

After her selection in July 1985, McAuliffe instantly became a national figure, giving interviews and appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In many of her interviews, she used her platform to discuss her passion for teaching and promote teachers’ issues.

For several months, McAuliffe trained at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas along with the six other members of her crew and her backup, Barbara Morgan. The experienced astronauts on the crew would do the job of running the shuttle. Her job as a payload specialist was to learn how to live in space, and also practice science lessons that she would teach on camera while up in the space shuttle.

Given the huge popularity of the Teacher in Space Project, NASA decided to announce a Journalist in Space program before McAuliffe had even started her mission. Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, Sam Donaldson and Geraldo Rivera were some of the 1,703 hopefuls who applied for the program by its January 1986 deadline. However, NASA would soon postpone the program following the Challenger disaster.

The Challenger Explosion

On the morning of January 28, 1986, the day of the Challenger’s launch, McAuliffe’s husband, children and parents gathered at Florida’s Cape Canaveral to see her take off. NASA had already delayed the launch by multiple days due to weather conditions, and had aborted a launch the day before. For the second day in a row, the crew climbed into the Challenger and prepared for liftoff. The shuttle took off, and the crowd cheered; but then they saw an explosion.

“None of us had really seen a launch live so it wasn’t clear exactly what happened,” says Bob Hohler, a journalist who covered McAuliffe for the Concord Monitor and was present at the launch. Some spectators knew that the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters would eventually break off, and they weren’t sure if that’s what they’d seen.

The crowd received confirmation that something was wrong when NASA Public Affairs Officer Steve Nesbitt made a startling announcement, which everyone watching on TV heard too: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” Then, a minute later: “We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.”

Although many viewers believed the crew died instantly, investigations later revealed the crew likely survived the initial explosion in their intact cabin and plummeted to their deaths. An inquiry into why the disaster occurred revealed that there were known safety concerns about how the O-rings on the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters reacted to cold temperatures. Decision makers at NASA and Morton Thiokol, the company that built the boosters, had ignored engineers’ warnings about them.

“The first days, it was just an enormous outflow of grief,” says Hohler, who also wrote the book I Touch the Future: The Story of Christa McAuliffe. “It took time for the anger to well up. And the anger came the more we learned about what had happened. A lot of us didn’t realize exactly how dangerous it was.”

The Teacher in Space Legacy

The families of the Challenger crew had varying reactions to the disaster. June Scobee Rodgers, wife of Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, established the first of many Challenger Centers in 1986 to teach students about science and engineering. The organization also serves to preserve the memory of the Challenger’s crew members: Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee and Michael Smith.

The disaster led NASA to end the Teacher in Space Project, but it didn’t end the space agency’s collaboration with teachers. In the early 2000s, NASA launched an Educator Astronaut program to train teachers to be full astronauts. Barbara Morgan, a teacher who served as McAuliffe’s backup candidate for the Teacher in Space Project, went to space through the program in 2007. In 2010, high school science teacher Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger flew to space as a mission specialist on the Discovery and logged more than 362 hours in space.

Metcalf-Lindenburger was in fifth grade when the Challenger exploded. As a kid who loved space and whose parents were both teachers, she was excited to see the launch of the first teacher in space. After the disaster, she talked with her mom about how the crew members died doing “what they were excited about, what they believed in, and that’s what we should do in life,” she says.

The Challenger disaster didn’t diminish Metcalf-Lindenburger’s dream of going to space, and neither did the second U.S. space shuttle disaster on February 1, 2003 when the Columbia broke apart while reentering Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven people on board. NASA was still investigating the Columbia disaster when Metcalf-Lindenburger learned about the Educator Astronaut program in 2003 and decided to go for it.

“I applied recognizing," says Metcalf-Lindenburger, who is now a board member of the Challenger Center, "that there’s risk in flying in space."

HISTORY Vault: Christa McAuliffe: Teacher in Space

Portrait of the teacher who died in the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Includes interviews with her parents and students.