NASA
Astronaut Barbara Morgan, an STS-118 mission specialist and former Idaho schoolteacher, smiles for a photo near the aft flight deck of space shuttle Endeavour while docked at the International Space Station.
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updated 1/27/2011 2:38:18 PM ET 2011-01-27T19:38:18

A quarter century ago, NASA's plan to send the first teacher to space was thwarted when Christa McAuliffe and her six crewmates were killed when the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed just after liftoff. McAuliffe's backup, Barbara Morgan, later became the first educator astronaut to reach orbit when she flew on the STS-118 flight of the shuttle Endeavour in August 2007.

Morgan left the astronaut corps in 2008 to become a Distinguished Educator in Residence at Idaho's Boise State University.

Space.com spoke to Morgan about the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, and her work to carry on McAuliffe's mission. Here are her thoughts on the loss of Challenger and its crew:

Space.com: What do you hope people remember about Challenger at this time?

There's so much that people are doing to carry forward the mission of the Challenger crew. Including all of our teachers who, some are in risky situations, go into that classroom every day to work with children, and they believe in the kids and believe that they have a bright future and are there to help them get there.

One particular program I wanted to mention is the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, and the tremendous work that they're doing that really provides a wonderful opportunity for our young people to experience the joy of working in a team and exploring and discovering together and engaging in our wonderful world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

I'm proud of what they're doing.

Space.com: Obviously, this tragedy was devastating for everyone, but how would you describe the impact of the Challenger accident on the education community?

Morgan: Christa was a great representative of the teaching profession, and Christa reminded everybody, at a time when education was being lambasted, that our country is full of good teachers who are working really hard in the classroom to do the best they can to help our young people have a bright future.

Christa's saying was, "I touch the future, I teach."

Space.com: Do you think the tragedy was discouraging to students who dreamed of going into space?

Morgan: Well, it was devastating, for students and teachers and everyone else in the country.

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We had so many students after that wanting to be teachers, it was phenomenal, it was beautiful. And students and others who really sat up and thought, "What is it that I want to do in my future, and I have the capability to do it."

So actually (it gave students) great confidence in what they can do in their own lives and what we can do as a country.

Space.com: In the wake of the accident, did you ever consider changing your plans to go to space?

Morgan: After the Challenger accident, NASA asked if I would continue on, and at that time we had students all over the country and all over the world watching adults in a horrible, horrible situation. It was such a sad time. And this was on national TV and all that stuff.

I thought it was really important that our young people see adults doing the right thing. And that is figuring out what went wrong, figuring out what we did wrong, and doing all we could to fix it and make it better and make the future open for them.

Space.com: Do you think space exploration is worth the risk, and the human cost?

Morgan: If we put our head in the sand and don't accept any risk at all, we're not going anywhere.

We can never predict the future, but we can help shape the future. And if we want that future to be bright and open-ended and be one of lifelong learning, we've got to keep reaching for the stars.

There is so much that we don't know, and space and space exploration just provides so much. It truly motivates our young people and it’s exploration, it's discovery, it's experimentation — it's all those things that make humans, humans. And it's all the things that help us gain more knowledge and help make the world a better place.

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And it's also important that we show our young people that there are risks that should be taken.

As teachers, we're always working with children in our class to risk trying something that they may fail at. To risk offering an opinion or a new idea, to risk asking a question, even though a lot of people are embarrassed to ask questions to show that they might not know something. Those are really important risks. And people need to see adults taking risks for the right reasons.

Space.com: While you were an astronaut, did you always know you wanted to go back to teaching?

Morgan: Yes. Because education is so important. Just like exploration. And you know they are very much the same. It's about learning, it's about exploring, it's about discovering, it's about sharing and building a future. You do it with both.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: The Challenger tragedy in pictures

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  1. From joy to tragedy

    The shuttle Challenger's mission in 1986 was meant to mark a milestone in spaceflight: the first orbital voyage of an American teacher. NASA's choice for the honor was Christa McAuliffe, a social-studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire. Here, McAuliffe rides past the New Hampshire State House in Concord with her daughter Caroline and son Scott, during a Lions Club parade on July 21, 1985. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Packing for Houston

    High-school teacher Christa McAuliffe folds her training uniform as she packs for the trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sept. 8, 1985. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Preparing Challenger

    The space shuttle Challenger is transferred to the high bay of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 17, 1985. Inside the cavernous VAB, the Challenger orbiter was mated with its solid rocket boosters and external tank in preparation for its launch a month later. (Terry Renna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Zero-G and she feels fine

    Christa McAuliffe gets a preview of microgravity on NASA's specially equipped KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft on Jan. 13, 1986. The plane flies in a parabolic pattern that provides short periods of weightlessness. For some people, those bouts of zero-G can induce nausea - which is why the airplane was nicknamed the "Vomit Comet." (Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. To the launch pad

    The shuttle Challenger is delivered to its launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center atop a mobile crawler-transporter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Practicing for an escape

    Challenger's crew members practice the procedure for escaping from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center using slide wire baskets. From left are Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. Directly behind them are astronauts Judy Resnik and Ellison Onizuka. The basket system was designed to take the astronauts off the pad quickly if an emergency arose just before launch. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ready for flight

    Challenger's crew members stand in the White Room at Launch Pad 39B after a dress rehearsal for launch. From left are Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, commander Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, pilot Michael Smith and Ellison Onizuka. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Heading for the pad

    Challenger's crew members leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center for the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1986. Commander Dick Scobee is at the front of the line, followed by Judy Resnick, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe and pilot Michael Smith. NASA had to scrub the launch attempt on Jan. 27, due to high winds at the pad, and liftoff was rescheduled for Jan. 28. (Steve Helber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The first sign of trouble

    A launch-pad camera captures a close-up view of the shuttle Challenger's liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. From this camera position, a cloud of gray-brown smoke can be seen on the right side of the solid rocket booster, directly across from the letter "U" in "United States" on the orbiter. This was the first visible sign that a breach in the booster's joint may have occurred. Investigators determined that frigid overnight temperatures caused the booster joints' normally pliable rubber O-ring seals to become hard and non-flexible. The failure of the seals caused hot exhaust gases to blow through the joints, cutting into the external fuel tank. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Liftoff!

    A wide-angle view shows the ascent of the shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. In the seconds after ignition, the rocket engines' hot blast began the process of destruction. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Ice at the pad

    Why did the O-rings fail? On the day of the shuttle Challenger's launch, icicles draped structures at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The unusually cold weather, beyond the tolerances for which the rubber seals were approved, most likely caused the O-ring failure. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Watching the launch

    Classmates of the son of America's first teacher-astronaut cheer as the space shuttle Challenger lifts skyward from Launch Pad 39B on Jan. 28, 1986. Their delight turned to horror as the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into flight. The boy in the white hat and glasses at center is Peter Billingsley, the star of "A Christmas Story" and a spokesman for the young astronaut program. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The final seconds

    The right solid rocket booster on the shuttle Challenger begins to explode, just a little more than a minute into the shuttle's ascent from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. (NASA via AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moment of tragedy

    An orange fireball marks the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. (Bruce Weaver / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Remains of the rockets

    At about 76 seconds, fragments of the orbiter can be seen tumbling against a background of fire, smoke and vaporized propellants from Challenger's external fuel tank. The left solid rocket booster is still shooting skyward. A reddish-brown cloud envelops the disintegrating orbiter. The color is indicative of the nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer propellant in the orbiter's reaction control system. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Flying fragments

    This picture, released by the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger tragedy, shows fragments of the orbiter flying away from the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, 78 seconds after liftoff. The top arrow shows the orbiter's left wing. The center arrow shows the orbiter's main engine; and the bottom arrow shows the orbiter's forward fuselage. Investigators suggested that some of Challenger's crew members may have survived the explosion itself but died in the fall down to Earth. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The tragedy sinks in

    Flight director Jay Greene studies data at his console inside Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center in Texas, just minutes after the announcement that Challenger's ascent was not nominal. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A family's sorrow

    Members of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe's family react shortly after the failed liftoff of the space shuttle Challenger from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. Christa's sister, Betsy, is in front, with parents Grace and Ed Corrigan behind. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Death of a celebration

    Carina Dolcino, senior class president at Concord High School, is stunned by the news that the space shuttle carrying Christa McAuliffe, one of the school's teachers, exploded after launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Students watched the launch on television sets scattered throughout the school in Concord, N.H., and a celebration had been planned for a successful liftoff. (Ken Williams / Concord Monitor via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White House watch

    President Ronald Reagan, center, is surrounded by members of his senior staff on Feb. 3, 1986, as he watches a TV replay of the Challenger shuttle explosion at the White House. From left are Larry Speakes, deputy White House press secretary; presidential assistant Dennis Thomas; special assistant Jim Kuhn; Reagan; White House communications director Patrick Buchanan; and chief of staff Donald Regan. (Peter Souza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sympathy at school

    Lisa Mitten of Concord, N.H., wipes tears from her eyes as her daughter Jessica reads some of the letters of sympathy that were on display at Concord High School on Feb. 1, 1986. Hundreds of Concord residents visited the school library to see the many telegrams and letters that were sent from all over the United States. (Toby Talbot / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Recovering debris

    Debris from the ill-fated shuttle Challenger is unloaded from the Coast Guard cutter Dallas during February 1986. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A piece of Challenger

    For weeks after the accident, search and recovery teams went out to retrieve Challenger debris from the Atlantic Ocean, with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy. Vessels brought pieces of debris to the Trident Basin at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, from which they were shipped to Kennedy Space Center for investigation. The Coast Guard cutter Dallas transported this fragment of exterior tiling. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Retrieved from the ocean

    A piece of debris from the space shuttle Challenger is hoisted onto the deck of the Stena Workhorse off the coast of Florida during a recovery mission. (Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Farewell to the fallen

    The remains of the shuttle Challenger's seven crew members are transferred from seven hearses to a MAC C-141 transport plane at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility, for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Del. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In memoriam

    President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, stand with the wife of astronaut Michael Smith and other family members at a memorial service for the victims of the Challenger disaster. (Diana Walker / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Grim investigation

    Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong, a member of the presidential panel investigating the Challenger explosion, listens to testimony before the commission in Washington on Feb. 11, 1986. Another commission member, David Acheson, listens in the background. A model of the space shuttle sits on the table. (Scott Stewart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Solving the puzzle

    Search and recovery teams located pieces of both the left and right sidewall of the shuttle Challenger during the months-long retrieval effort that followed the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986. Heat and fire damage scarred the right sidewall. But the left sidewall, depicted here, escaped the flames and suffered only from overload fractures and deep gouge marks. The largest intact piece formed part of the payload bay sidewall and measured approximately 30 by 12 feet. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Washed ashore

    Some pieces of the shuttle Challenger did not surface until long after the explosion. A tractor carries one of the shuttle's elevons after it washed ashore on Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Dec. 17, 1996 ... almost 11 years after the loss of Challenger and its crew. (AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Day of remembrance

    Every January, NASA recalls the Challenger explosion as well as other space tragedies on a "Day of Remembrance." Here, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe lays a wreath at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Jan. 28, 2003. O'Keefe also paid tribute to the three astronauts of Apollo 1 who died in a launch pad fire on Jan. 27, 1967. Sadly, seven more astronauts died just days after this picture was taken, on Feb. 1, 2003, when the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Christa McAuliffe
    Jim Cole / AP
    Above: Slideshow (30) The Challenger tragedy in pictures
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Interactive: Remembering the Challenger crew

Video: 25 years after Challenger, teacher’s words still resonate

  1. Closed captioning of: 25 years after Challenger, teacher’s words still resonate

    >>> as nasa prepares to retire its space shut hadal fleet this year this week marks a somber anniversary that reminds us while shuttle flights became come mop, they never became routine. it was 25 years ago this coming friday the shuttle "challenger" exploded over florida, killing all seven crew members, including a new hampshire high school teacher. christa mcauliffe had had hoped to take teaching to new heights but despite the tragedy, her mission continues today.

    >> this was her last visit to our school.

    >> christa mcauliffe was the kind of teacher everyone wanted to v.

    >> let's hear from it. wila's group back there.

    >> reporter: and the kind of teach michaela pond aspires to be.

    >> i was so sad i never got to take her class my senior year because would you walk by her classroom and you would see her jumping off desks and making thens come alive and could you hear her laugh.

    >> reporter: now teaching in arlington, virginia, hahn was a student at concord high school in new hampshire when christa mcauliffe was chosen by nasa from among some 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space .

    >> to hear that there's going to be a way to talk to a teacher in space , this was all new ideas and how does that happen?

    >> reporter: mcauliffe trained for a year with the crew of the "challenger" and prepared a series of lesson plans she would teach from orbit.

    >> t minus ten.

    >> reporter: her dream, to inspire students to literally reach for the stars .

    >> we have main engine start.

    >> reporter: mary liscomb studied teaching with christa . teaching is something that i think christa was born to do.

    >> roger, "challenger."

    >> reporter: but fate interveeped on a cold january morning.

    >> "challenger," go at throttle up.

    >> reporter: all seven crew members perished went "challenger" exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. of course, christa mcauliffe never got to teach those lessons from space but after all these years, she has reached more classrooms and more students than she likely ever imagined.

    >> we acknowledge, we are standing by.

    >> reporter: in mcauliffe 's native massachusetts and some 50 other places, "challenger" learning centers are continuing the educational mission mcauliffe and her crewmates started. at the "challenger" center, students and often teachers embark on simulated space missions . the aim, to create excitement about math, science and space in schools and demonstrate the value of team work, the very things mcauliffe and the "challenger" crew had had hoped to accomplish.

    >> see how her legacy through this is teaching children,cooperate, how to communicate, to love math and science. it makes science and technology relatable.

    >> here is a teacher who took a risk. it didn't turn out the way she expected, but the high hopes she had for education impact all of them every day. they, too, can reach for the stars .

    >> reporter: today there are dozens of schools around the world named after christa mcauliffe , but there are countless teachers who have turned her life's story into a teachable moment.

    >> i always say there's nothing you can't do, you just have to try. and i try to talk in the way i know that christa inspired her students.

    >> there's more on the legacy of christa mcauliffe and the challenger crew our website, nightly.msnbc.com.

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