Christa McAuliffe Gets NASA's Nod to Conduct America's First Classroom in Space
08/05/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT
The search had gone on 10 months with as much publicity as its organizers could muster, and then on July 19 the winner was announced: Christa McAuliffe, 36, a high school teacher in Concord, N.H., would be the first "average citizen" in space. McAuliffe is scheduled to go into orbit in January on the 25th flight of the space shuttle.
The goal of putting a teacher on the shuttle is ambitious: to rekindle the public excitement surrounding the earliest U.S. space flights by sending someone who could tell other people what it feels like up there. The eldest of five children, McAuliffe married her high school sweetheart in 1970, has two children and originally studied to be a historian but was lured to teaching in the early '70s. Her law and economics classes at Concord High are remarkably popular despite the daunting subject matter, and her course, The American Woman, has even managed to attract some boys. McAuliffe is an advocate of social history, which tells how those known as "the common people" lived through the ages. Ironically, if the press coverage goes as NASA hopes, McAuliffe will never be a "common" person again. To see how NASA's talent search paid off, PEOPLE followed McAuliffe through her first two days of media stardom.
The Roosevelt Room of the White House is small and swarming with cameramen and photographers. If NASA wanted to give its teachernaut-to-be an upclose and claustrophobic view of media blitz, it succeeded. The 10 candidates come into the room as a group and a reporter shouts out, "Do you know who's won?" No answer. Do the Christians tell the lions?
George Bush looks, well, preppy: tan suit and brown tassled loafers. Six days earlier he was acting President of the U.S. Today it's back to the ceremonial. He talks about—surprise!—the "teacher with the right stuff." Then he announces the first runner-up: Barbara Morgan, the Idaho second grade teacher who looked so radiant in pictures of the NASA weightlessness tests. Morgan gets a trophy. And the winner is...Miss New Hampshire, Sharon Christa McAuliffe of Concord!
This is it, the first big moment. What will she say? If this woman can't capture the hearts of Americans, then the whole selection process—more than 11,000 applicants, 114 semifinalists, 10 finalists, and now this—will be largely for naught. McAuliffe is a pretty brunette with a determined stride. She shakes Bush's hand. "It's not often a teacher is lost for words," she says—and chokes up, tears in her eyes.
Is it okay for a teachernaut to cry? Real astronauts don't bawl. Yes, look at the rapt journalists; it's okay. McAuliffe looks over at the other nine teachers and says, "When I go on the shuttle, there'll be one body but [sob!] I'll be taking 10 souls with me."
Cut! Print! You can hear America thinking, "Christa, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Out on the North Lawn afterward Christa is completely recovered, undaunted by the 19 microphones snaking up a stand in front of her. Perhaps one of the reasons they picked her is that she looks like what she is, but better: Dressed in black pumps, pleated beige skirt, yellow jacket, and with a touch of gray in her hair and a little black purse slung over her shoulder, she reads "teacher" without any of the word's dowdier connotations. Her manner is friendly but not coy, and her answers to the Softball questions are classic. What will her job be on the shuttle? Humbly but with humor, she says, "To stay out of the way when they launch the two satellites." Why was she picked over the others? "I don't know. I thought they would have to put everybody's name in a hat to pick a winner." How does it feel to have been chosen? Christa hits this one out of the park, with (can this be pre-scripted?) the perfect metaphor: "I'm still kind of floating. I don't know when I'll come down to earth." Reporters scribble like mad. Christa smiles a lovely smile.
The moment in which she is delivered from her first hardball question: On her way across the lawn she is snagged by a feisty blond woman wielding a microphone. Isn't it remarkable, she inquires, that none of the 10 finalists for the spot was black? Christa explains that the original written applications were blind, with no questions about race or age. Still, the woman presses: What message does she think is being sent to black children? Have they again been left without a role model? Christa has backbone; she seems inclined to stay and argue, but suddenly, out of nowhere, in swoops fellow finalist Dave Marquart and envelops her in a huge congratulatory bear hug. The reporter is left behind.
...And in which Christa makes her first concession to her new fame: a TV producer asks for a 5:30 interview. Christa looks doubtful: She misses her husband, Steve, a lawyer in Concord. "I've got a plane home at ten of six and I really want to make that," she says. Seconds later a stocky man with a Ronald Reagan tiepin walks up and whispers in her ear. Christa smiles gamely and announces, "I'm not gonna make that plane..."
The interview with CNN's Take Two is surreal. The interviewer is in Atlanta. Christa hears his questions through a tiny earphone, then has to pretend he is standing right in front of her. A microphone clings like a snail near the rose in her lapel. Christa acts as though she'd been doing this sort of thing all her life. No, she hasn't called her family yet. No, the flight doesn't scare her. "I really see the shuttle as a safe program." The disembodied interviewer appears to have asked about Christa's trophy, the Oscar-size sculpture Bush gave her of a student looking up to a teacher looking up at the stars. "Oh, this," she smiles. "I've been clutching this like it was a security blanket." Smiles all around. After a quick ABC interview, Christa is whisked in a car back to NASA for a few private meetings with its brass.
But the meetings never come off. They are replaced by more interviews. Christa manages to squeeze in a phone call to Steve at his law firm. He pretends at first not to know she won, but then relents; his whole office has been clustered around the radio. Next she tries her parents in Framingham, Mass., but the lines are jammed.
Christa is homesick; NASA, mindful of the media demand, invites her to stay in Washington overnight, but she is adamant. A flight is arranged. Minutes later, a young black NASA intern walks shyly up and indirectly addresses the blond reporter's question. "That's Dawn," she says, pointing to another smiling girl. "She's my cousin. Can she have an autograph?"
Christa's departure from Washington today means she must complete an almost superhuman schedule of TV interviews before catching her plane. For Washington's WRC-TV on the NASA front lawn, she trots out the line, fast becoming a favorite, about putting everybody's name into a hat. Then she does an NBC affiliate in front of the Hall of States Building near the Capitol. Then onto the roof of that building for WMUR-TV of Manchester, N.H. "I've combed my hair," she says to a producer. "It just doesn't make any difference." The roof crowd is joined by New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman, who knew Steve back when Rudman was state attorney general. He presents Christa with a bouquet and tells a reporter, "She's an extremely capable girl. You know, New Hampshire is a small state, but historically, over the years, it has produced some very interesting folks..." A little while later he leans over Christa and stage-whispers, "It's going to be like a totally uncontrolled three-ring circus."
The producer from Manchester wants a few more minutes with Christa for a Boston channel but this does not suit the producer for MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHour, a nattily attired young man with sunglasses. She is scheduled with him next a few blocks away. "We are a live network news show," he enunciates, emphasizing the words live, network, news, show momentously. "I'm sure you'll appreciate our dilemma."
The spiffy MacNeil/ Lehrer producer is visibly rattled. The Hall of States Building elevator carrying him, Christa, Christa's NASA handler Edward Campion, Senator Rudman and two aides to the street refuses to budge below the fifth floor, and the minutes are ticking toward M/L's on-air time. The elevator returns to the eighth floor and Rudman's aides run off to check the other cars. Same problem. The building's residents refuse to let the group use the stairs for fear of setting off security alarms. Everybody hops back in the first car and tries again. It stops at five. "Are we in the Twilight Zone?" asks Christa. "I hear the same people built this elevator who built the shuttle," says one of the aides. Ed Campion looks pained. The producer looks ill. Suddenly, someone figures out how to make one of the other cars go all the way down. There is a mad dash, and seconds later the group tumbles out into the lobby. "We've lost Jacobson!" yells one of Rudman's aides. "Forget Jacobson," the Senator yells. "We'll come back for him later!" Everyone rushes pell-mell into the street and piles into a cab.
MacNeil/Lehrer goes fine. If Christa is getting a little giddy ("I'll give you the 10-nine," says the technician, referring to her cue. "And then I'll blast off in the chair," she replies), she is still perfect on-camera, repeating the pick-one-out-of-the-hat line, but also able to upgrade her answers for the show's more sophisticated audience. "I want to give an ordinary person's view of space, the idea that there's a new way of living out there," she says. "I mean, there's going to be space law, there's going to be business in space, and students have to prepare for that future." When it's over, she gives the technician the thumbs-up sign.
Soon she is in another cab, rushing back to the Hall of States for her last interview of the day. The driver is Aladdin A. Khaled of Sierra Leone. "Hey," he says, "you the teacher who is going into space? I just heard on the radio before you got in, 'I was floating so high I thought I'd never come down.' " Right over the fences.
Over a taco salad at a Holiday Inn Christa discusses the day with Ed Campion. Ed is a harried-looking, earnest man. "I used to have 114 people [the semifinalists] to look after," he says, "then 10 to herd around Washington, and now," he smiles at Christa, "I have one star." The two discuss what Christa calls her "sparklers," meaning phrases like the "floating" one whose worth she has come to recognize "because the reporters reach for their pens." She doesn't mind repeating the sparklers. "Can you imagine how many times I've taught the same history lesson in 15 years and generated enthusiasm so the kids will like it? I'm just doing what I do best,"
It is 10:30 at night, and Christa is almost home. The first part of the flight, USAir to Hartford, is over, and she is now on Pilgrim Airlines from Hartford to Manchester. Christa, who has some experience with Pilgrim, seems to feel that if the company operated the Space Shuttle, she'd think twice about the trip. The door between the cockpit and passenger sections swings wildly. A stewardess with a heavy Irish brogue takes in the statuette Christa still clutches in her lap and comments, "Looks like it's been a good night. Want to talk about it?" For the first time all day, Christa lets some fatigue show. "Those TV lights were so hot, I was dying," she says. "You never realize how intense they are until you're standing there." But although most of the sparklers are missing from her conversation when there's no camera around, she's no less sincere about the purpose of her trip, which she sees as making space understandable to Americans; as a place where they may soon live out the rituals of daily life.
"When I talk to my kids," she says, with conviction, "I liken what I'm going to do to the women who pioneered the West in Conestoga wagons. They didn't, have a camera; they described things in vivid detail, in word pictures. They were concerned with daily tasks and the interaction between people, with hopes and fears. Those diaries and journals are the richest part of the history of our westward expansion—without them, it would just be how many Indians were killed and the number of settlements started.
"I'll be able to take the time to report on feelings and emotions; how it is to live in a close environment with people you don't really know; housekeeping; weightlessness. A lot of things you kind of wondered how they did them up there. Eating! Kids may not relate to satellites, but they can relate to breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"You know," she says, "people come up to me and say, 'I really admire you but I wouldn't want to do it.' I can't understand that. If you had a chance, wouldn't you want to do it?"
Christa can—and will, if the media stay interested—go on for weeks, but right now her mind is elsewhere. She and Steve have been running up record phone bills between Concord and Houston and Washington for two weeks, and in a few minutes, he'll be picking her up in Manchester to drive her home. She pats her hair again—maybe this time it will stay—and refreshes her lipstick. "It feels like I've been away for ages," she says to the mirror. Then the plane lands, and there on the tarmac is Steve with their son, Scott. She rushes to embrace them; they walk together into the terminal...
...Where pandemonium breaks loose. In seconds Christa is surrounded by around 200 people, three film crews, a raft of colored balloons and welcome-home signs, someone cavorting in a six-foot tall pig suit and a bagpiper playing. People are cheering. Congratulations! Welcome home! Congratulations!
Instantly, all sign of fatigue leaves Christa's face. "I'm so glad to be home," she exclaims. "I'm glad to be representing New Hampshire." Her voice catches, and maybe it is the reflection of those hot TV lights, but there seems to be a tear in her eye.