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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Burning Blue

The Untold Story of Christa McAuliffe and NASA's Challenger Disaster

Kevin Cook

Henry Holt and Co.

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1

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.

* * *

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.

Christa McAuliffe

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.


Copyright © 2021 by Kevin Cook