Sharon Christa Corrigan was a seventh grader in Framingham, Massachusetts, on May 5, 1961, the day Alan Shepard became the first American to fly into space. Christa, as everyone called her, joined classmates to watch the launch on a portable TV in the school cafeteria. The grainy black-and-white screen showed Shepard in his cramped capsule atop an eighty-foot Mercury-Redstone rocket that could launch him skyward or blow him to bits. After three hours of glitches and delays, Shepard was pissed. He radioed Launch Control: “Fix your little problems,” he said, “and light this candle.”
Christa Corrigan grew up with the space program. Her favorite TV hero was Superman, the man who flew faster than rockets. Her political hero was President Kennedy, who announced that the United States would put a man on the moon before the decade was out. As a schoolgirl she followed Shepard’s suborbital flight and safe landing, John Glenn’s 1962 orbits of Earth, and the rest of the Mercury and Gemini programs. She thought it would be neat to be an astronaut, but Christa was a practical person. America was out to put a man on the moon, not a robot, a monkey, or a woman. She wouldn’t have made much of an astronaut anyway, a chubby Girl Scout with no knack for science or math who got sick to her stomach on carnival rides.
She had barely survived to go to school in the first place. As an infant, she spent her first few weeks fighting a gastrointestinal illness, wailing and wasting away at Boston Children’s Hospital while her parents held her little hands and prayed. Doctors kept the baby alive by poking tubes into her arms and scalp, feeding her a mixture of glucose and water until a new antibiotic, Aureomycin, saved her life. After that she kept charging at life as if life was a gift. As a toddler, she rode her tricycle into traffic on busy Columbia Street. Three-year-old Christa pedaled for all she was worth, cars zipping by in both directions. The family dog, a mutt named Teddy, took off after her. Teddy yapped and ran circles around the little girl on the trike until traffic stopped. Grace Corrigan corralled her daughter and led her home, giving thanks to Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, for whom the girl was named.
As an overachieving high schooler, “there was a special vibrancy to her,” recalled one of the nuns who taught her at Framingham’s Marian High School. While babysitting four younger siblings, taking piano and guitar lessons, and working on weekends at a dry cleaner, Christa found time to join the glee club, drama club, German club, ceramics club, girls’ basketball team, and student council, and to play a singing nun in a school production of The Sound of Music. An “average student” in her own estimation, she worked hard to make more As than Bs.
Classmates like Steve McAuliffe, the Clark Kent look-alike who became her boyfriend, spent senior year fielding college scholarship offers. Christa got none. A guidance counselor told her that a girl like her had four practical options: she could be a secretary, a nurse, a stewardess, or a teacher.
Christa couldn’t type. She couldn’t stand the sight of blood. The thought of flying made her queasy.
She told her boyfriend that she intended to be a schoolteacher. And one other thing: “If you asked me to marry you, I’d say yes.”
He hoped she wasn’t joking. “Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” she said. “But we have to wait till we graduate college.”
Steve was willing to wait. He accepted a scholarship from the Virginia Military Institute, six hundred miles away, and promised to stay faithful to her. Christa chose Framingham State College, a commuter school where tuition was only two hundred dollars a year. “Save your money for the boys,” she told her parents, referring to her two younger brothers. “I’ll live at home and get all the education I need.”
At Framingham State, where she majored in education before switching to history, she never missed an 8:00 a.m. class taught by Dean of Women Carolla Haglund, “The History of Westward Movement.” Campus gossips whispered that Haglund, who focused on the lives of the women and children history tended to forget, was a lesbian. Christa couldn’t care less if Dean Haglund was a Martian; she was enthralled by Haglund’s readings from the journals of women riding nineteenth-century wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail, a thousand-mile trek from Missouri to New Mexico that took fifteen months. One pioneer woman wrote that she gave birth on the trail, “then I rode horseback and carried my baby on the saddle.”
Between school activities, studying, and a part-time job waiting tables at Howard Johnson’s, Christa kindled her long-distance romance by driving her Volkswagen Beetle through six states to visit Steve. It was a nine-hour drive in good traffic from Framingham to the VMI campus in Lexington, Virginia, but she said it was worth the trouble. When friends asked about their sleeping arrangements, she winked. On the way home, she often stopped in Washington, DC. Nineteen-year-old Christa Corrigan spent free afternoons sitting in the gallery during Supreme Court hearings or touring the National Air and Space Museum, looking up at Charles Lindbergh’s single-seat airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis.
In her junior and senior years at Framingham State—“my radical years,” she called them—she attended her first rock concert, a Jefferson Airplane show at Boston’s Back Bay Theatre. She began wearing paisley dresses, white lipstick, and granny glasses. In 1969, she marched against the Vietnam War. She told her parents she was sorry if her activism made them uneasy but would not apologize for her beliefs. On graduation day, in 1970, she wore a black armband to protest the war.
Ed and Grace Corrigan’s consolation came two months later. In a full-dress Catholic Mass and wedding at the Corrigans’ home parish, Saint Jeremiah, three blocks from the house where Christa grew up, Steven James McAuliffe married his high-school sweetheart. Neither of them had gone steady with anyone else since they began dating at the age of fifteen. The bespectacled groom and his groomsmen wore white tuxes with black trim and black bow ties. The white-gowned bride had daisies in her hair. After their vows a guitarist strummed “A Time for Us,” the love theme from the 1968 movie Romeo and Juliet.
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Christa took her husband’s name. That was a choice she would second-guess for years. What kind of example was she setting, changing her name for no reason except that society expected it? How would her husband feel about spending the rest of his life as Steve Corrigan?
At the same time, she loved her new name, the look and sound of it.
She had written the name a thousand times in schoolgirl journals and notebooks. Now it was hers, inscribed in her careful cursive loops on the ledger at the Publick House Historic Inn in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, where she and Steve spent their wedding night. The Publick House was “all antique,” she wrote home to her mother. “There was lemon soap, and two apples on our bureau.”
For the next three years, as Steve attended law school at George Washington University, Christa worked as a substitute teacher and waitress. She took night classes to earn her master’s degree in secondary-school education at Bowie State, an inexpensive, historically Black college where she was one of the few white students. She and Steve had always said they’d return to New England when they got around to raising a family, but by the time their first child, Scott Corrigan McAuliffe, was born on September 11, 1976—“my Bicentennial baby,” Christa called him—they had spent their first six years of married life in and around Washington, DC.
According to family lore, they were as happy as a sitcom couple until the following year, when Steve came through the door one evening with a surprise.
“Honey, I’m home! And guess what?”
His wife had taught a full day of classes, finished the housework, shopping, and laundry, and prepared their dinner.
“They want me at Justice!” Steve said. “A job in the Carter administration—isn’t that great?”
Christa said, “You can live where you want, but Scott and I are going to live in New Hampshire.”
So much for Justice. Steve looked for work in New Hampshire. He took a job in the state attorney general’s office and they moved to Concord, the state capital, a town of thirty thousand built on the banks of the Merrimack River. “A Norman Rockwell kind of place,” Christa called it. In 1979, she gave birth to a daughter, Caroline, who was named after two of Christa’s heroines, her aunt Carrie and Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter. Caroline Corrigan McAuliffe and her brother, Scott, grew up in a brown-shingled three-story house their parents bought after Steve switched from the attorney general’s office to a more lucrative private practice. Built in the 1920s, the house shivered when the wind blew.
Christa filled the place with heirlooms, including her grandmother’s mahogany dining-room table, which must have weighed a ton, and tag-sale buys like a church pew she turned into a sofa. She relaxed with needlepoint or a copy of Good Housekeeping. Soon she and Steve hired a contractor to knock out part of the roof, put in a skylight and install a third-floor Jacuzzi where they could unwind after their workdays, looking up at the stars.
Christa went to work at Bow Memorial, a middle school near Concord. She became the most popular teacher there, a spirited lecturer who told her students there was more to history than old white men in paintings. “History’s happening now. We’re part of it,” she said. She tacked Time and People magazine covers to the bulletin board: Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Indiana Jones, the Mount Saint Helens volcano, the brand-new Rubik’s Cube. She brought in a used-car salesman to tell teenagers how not to get cheated when they bought their first cars. She taught grammar and punctuation using the publication her students cared about most: the driver’s manual.
“One thing I loved about her teaching was her ability to bring the world into her classroom,” says her friend and fellow teacher Eileen O’Hara. “One day she walked into school carrying her books, papers, and a saucepan. A particular dish had come up in class and a few of her students had never heard of it. So she cooked a pot of it and brought it to school so her class could taste it.”
As president of the Bow Memorial teachers’ union, Christa McAuliffe announced that New Hampshire should be ashamed to rank forty-ninth out of the fifty states in education funding. The superintendent of schools didn’t appreciate reading that quote in the Concord Monitor. “She thought it was a crime that teachers were paid so badly and women were second-class citizens,” a friend recalls. Christa applied for the job of assistant principal at Bow Memorial, but the school board turned her down. The official reason: “No administrative experience.” She told friends she was pretty sure she knew the real reason: they didn’t want a woman on top.
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In 1983, she landed her dream job, teaching social studies at Concord High School. Everything about Concord High was “neat,” high praise from her.
“She invited various professionals to speak to her students, people like the director of the New Hampshire ACLU,” O’Hara recalls. “Through a program with the local bar association she got a volunteer ‘Lawyer in the Classroom’ to sit in on her classes and answer students’ questions. Again she was connecting her classroom with the real world.” Within a semester Christa had joined every faculty committee in sight and launched a frankly feminist social-studies course called “The American Woman.” Fifteen girls and one intrepid boy signed up.
Like Carolla Haglund, Mrs. McAuliffe made textbook accounts “lively and even controversial,” a former student says. Christa brought her guitar to class and sang sixties protest songs. She had her students dress in period costumes and act out scenes starring Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, and Rosa Parks. Students voted on which women to study. One of their choices was Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut, who flew in the space shuttle Challenger that year.
Twenty years after she and Steve met at Marian High, the McAuliffes were living the life they had pictured as ambitious, sincere, slightly nerdy teenagers. Every weekday evening Christa tucked the children into bed, then brewed a cup of tea and took it to the living room. Sitting in front of the TV with the sound turned low, she sipped her tea and graded papers.
“Everybody loved Christa,” says her college classmate Mary Liscombe, “but it’s not like she was a saint.” Mrs. McAuliffe fibbed on a lease application in Maryland, for instance, checking No pets after she and Steve adopted a cat they named Rizzo after the Dustin Hoffman character in Midnight Cowboy.
In Concord she organized a group of moms who’d pile into her VW van for raids on a Manchester grocery warehouse where they scored 40- and 50-percent discounts by posing as buyers for a supermarket chain. They bought fifty-pound sacks of flour and sugar, gallon jars of pickles, jugs of maple syrup, and spices at a discount, and divvied it up at a friend’s house.
On August 28, 1984—a Tuesday—Christa picked up the Concord Monitor off the porch. The headline read “REAGAN WANTS TEACHER IN SPACE.” A photo showed astronaut Judith Resnik, who had followed Sally Ride as the second female astronaut, climbing from the cockpit of a supersonic jet. According to the story, NASA was looking for a schoolteacher to fly on a space-shuttle mission. “Today, I’m directing NASA to begin a search,” President Reagan had announced, “to choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America’s finest—a teacher.”
She didn’t have time to read the whole story. She was pressed for time during her usual weekday-morning drill of whipping up four breakfasts, getting eight-year-old Scott out of bed, fed, dressed and ready for grade school, waking five-year-old Caroline and doing the same for her. After she’d showered and dressed she gathered up her daughter and the papers she’d graded the night before and drove to Concord High, where she dropped Caroline off at the school’s student-run day care center. “Every morning we’d see her arrive—right before or just after the bell—with books and papers under one arm and Caroline in the other,” another teacher remembered.
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Fifteen years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, NASA was looking for headlines. The glories of the Apollo program had ended when Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt completed humankind’s last moonwalk in 1972. Since then, with no extraterrestrial world within reach, the space program had shifted from missions of exploration to flights by four shuttles—“space trucks,” some called them—to perform experiments and place satellites in orbit. The first shuttle missions had recaptured some of NASA’s old glory, but within a year of Ride’s news-making flight, shuttle launches had become so routine that the TV networks no longer carried them live.
Facing budget cuts from Congress, the agency considered sending a celebrity into space. But 1984 was an election year, and education was an election issue. The Reagan administration’s budget cuts had led the National Education Association, which represented more than two million schoolteachers, to denounce Reagan as “America’s Scrooge on education” and endorse his Democratic rival, Walter Mondale. With the election three months away, the president and his advisors saw a chance to promote the space program and win teachers’ votes in one stroke.
“When that shuttle lifts off,” Reagan announced, “America will be reminded of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation. I can’t think of a better lesson for our children and our country.”
Copyright © 2021 by Kevin Cook