Former teacher recalls applying to program, 1986 shuttle disaster

While teaching at Tope Elementary School, Mary Graham applied to be the first teacher in space and made the first cut of applicants. She withdrew her application after learning she was pregnant. Graham, who is now retired, was watching the televised Jan. 28, 1986, launch of Challenger when things went horribly wrong.

Jan. 28, 1986: Liftoff of the Shuttle Challenger for STS 51-L mission.

That recollection of the telltale curl of smoke in the clear, blue Florida sky still haunts Mary Graham, who had aspired to be aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Graham, then a teacher at Tope Elementary School, was caught up in the opportunity to be the first teacher in space when President Ronald Reagan announced the program in 1984.

Graham, who is now retired from teaching, made the first cut of more than 11,000 applicants and might have gone farther, but learned she was pregnant, so she withdrew her application to fly on Challenger into space.

Graham, however, remained fascinated by the possibilities of having a teacher and a woman aboard the shuttle, so her eyes were fixed on the television the morning of Jan. 28, 1986.

Graham was familiar with each member of the crew, not just Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire educator who garnered the opportunity to be the first teacher in space.

Still caught up in the idea, Graham devoured everything she could find about the crew and the mission and knew the crew members by sight.

“I felt I knew these people,” she said.

In some ways, Graham’s interest in space flight and science was contrary to her earliest expectations.

Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, she hated science, Graham said.

That changed when she enrolled in a summer program that took her to Colorado and elsewhere in the West.

That summer changed everything, from her aversion to science to her plans for the future. She resolved to attend college in Colorado and did so at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where she later landed her first teaching job.

Soon thereafter, she moved to Grand Junction and got a job teaching at Tope.

Not only was she pleased with the selection of McAuliffe to take the spot reserved for a teacher, but with astronaut Judy Resnick, an engineer and mission specialist.

As it happened, Graham was on leave from teaching during the winter of 1986, having given birth to her daughter in August.

The morning of Jan. 28 is still vivid in Graham’s mind.

“I was planning ahead to make sure there were no distractions,” as she watched the liftoff and ensuing coverage, Graham said.

That morning, Graham was seated in front of the television, her daughter “on the floor, right by my right foot. I was really excited.”

With the belch of orange flame and burst of smoke, Challenger lifted off as the nation watched.

Seventy-three seconds in, though, the column of smoke topped by the streaking shuttle split into parts, each headed downward, away from the heavens, toward the sea. Each piece left behind its own contrail curving away from space.

Graham didn’t need a voice from the television to tell her that something had gone horrifically wrong.

“I just started to cry,” Graham said. “I grabbed my daughter and held her really, really close to me.

“I was rocking back and forth, staring at the TV, holding her as tight as I could.

“I don’t know how long it lasted.”

Investigators blamed the catastrophe on the failure of an O-ring on the shuttle’s right solid-fuel rocket booster that led to the flaming burst of hydrogen and oxygen that destroyed the shuttle’s controls, dooming it to the aeronautical stresses that tore it apart some 48,000 feet into the skies.

Almost immediately after the shock of the images, Graham grieved for McAuliffe and her family.

“She was new to this,” Graham said. “She and her family weren’t hardened to the dangers.”

For weeks, it didn’t dawn on her that, had events turned out a bit differently, she might have been aboard Challenger, Graham said.

Graham followed the investigation into the Challenger catastrophe and her interest in space never waned.

In particular, she followed the path of the Voyager space probes, which are at the farthest reaches of the solar system and bound for deeper space.

Back at Tope, Graham had students study the kinds of things they would place on a probe such as Voyager, which carries drawings of humans, information about Earth and examples of culture.

“They had to present it like a design team,” she said.

Graham didn’t tell her students until after their presentations about the messages placed aboard Voyager I and II, and none ever matched up with the messages that actually were sent, she said.

The experience, though, taught the students to look beyond their environs to envision a greater perspective.

Much as she looks out to space, though, Graham has no desire to look back at old video of that clear, bright day in January, 25 years ago.

“It’s too hard to watch,” she said. “It’s stomach-wrenching.”


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