Christa McAuliffe, beloved teacher and the first U.S. civilian selected to go to outer space, was one of seven people who died 30 years ago Thursday when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after its launch on Jan. 28, 1986. A New England native, McAuliffe was 37 at the time of the crash. She had been selected to be the first teacher in space, a title that would be fulfilled by her backup, Barbara Morgan in 2007.
“We didn’t really know what happened,” said Lisa Bristol, McAuliffe’s younger sister, Boston.com reported. “When they said, ‘Major malfunction,’ I looked at my parents and said, ‘It’s gotta be gone.’”
A technical failure in one of the O-ring gaskets caused the fiery explosion, as McAuliffe's two children, ages 5 and 8 at the time, along with her son's entire third-grade class, watched in confusion. The nation mourned her death, along with the six other astronauts who perished, shocked and saddened by the tragedy.
McAuliffe had been part of the fledgling "Teacher in Space" program — announced in 1981 — which aimed to send a civilian teacher into space. The New Hampshire social studies teacher applied and was selected out of some 11,000 applications.
Following the announcement of her selection, McAuliffe became something of a hometown hero to Concord, New Hampshire, being honored with parades and celebrated by kids throughout the state who dreamed of becoming astronauts.
"I touch the future. I teach." - NH's hero, Christa McAuliffe. pic.twitter.com/TfzNgqKINB
— Dean Barker (@deanbarker) January 28, 2016
The beloved teacher was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor posthumously. Schools in New England have honored her by naming buildings or primary schools in her honor.
Both of her children, Scott and Caroline, grew up to be educators, as well as several of her students who watched the explosion back in 1986. One of McAuliffe’s students, Tammy Hickey, who watched her teacher’s death in 1986 grew up to be a physics teacher in Florida, CBS reported.
"As a teacher now, I know that I want to show respect and show my students that I care," Hickey told CBS, adding, "I can say, to emulate how she was would be a service to these kids for sure."