Last Thursday’s passage of 30 years since the loss of Challenger, on 28 January 1986, has done little to dim the memory of what President Ronald Reagan once described as her seven “star voyagers”, who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God”. Mission 51L, had it succeeded, would have a relatively “vanilla” shuttle flight, with two major payloads—NASA’s second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B) and the Spartan-203 free-flying astronomy platform—having both flown before. There would have been the intricacies of deployment, rendezvous and retrieval during the planned six-day mission…but for the public the “vanilla” ended with Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, N.H., who was to become the first private citizen to venture into space. She was destined to teach two lessons from aboard Challenger. But for all the public adoration of McAuliffe, all seven members of the Mission 51L crew were remarkable patriots of the United States in their own right.
When Columbia was lost in 2003, its crew was held up as an indicator of how broad the space program had become, with steely U.S. test pilots, male and female astronauts, African-Americans, Indian-Americans and an Israeli crewman. Yet the crew of Challenger reflected a similarly wide swath of America: a commander who rose humbly from an aircraft mechanic; a super-achieving pilot whose tragedy was that he never made it to space; the world’s first Asian-American spacefarer; the world’s first female Jewish-American spacefarer; an African-American who was once refused service in a library, due to his skin color; an aircraft engineer upon whom the hands of fate cruely turned; and McAuliffe herself, the effervescent teacher, representing the nation’s finest.
Francis Richard Scobee, Commander
The story of Scobee’s life is an impressive account of a man who worked his way doggedly from the ground upward, from an aircraft mechanic to an Air Force test pilot to a civilian who flew both the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) and the shuttle itself. Born in Cle Elum, Wash., on 19 May 1939, Scobee attended high school in Auburn and enrolled in the Air Force immediately upon graduation. Aviation had been a fascination from a young age. “Ever since I was a little kid,” he told an interviewer, “I had been enamored by airplanes and that’s why I ended up working on them. They generally fascinated the heck out of me and I’d never done any flying. I used to go out to the airport and watch them fly.”
His earliest work was as a reciprocating engine mechanic at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and, whilst there, he attended night school to gain college credits for a scholarship into the Airman’s Education and Commissioning Program. This enabled Scobee to enter the University of Arizona to study aerospace engineering. He received his degree in 1965, gained his pilot’s wings the following year and undertook a combat tour in Vietnam. Returning to the United States, he was chosen to attend test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., from which he graduated in 1972. Prior to his selection by NASA, Scobee participated in test work on the Boeing 747, the experimental X-24B lifting body, the F-111 Aardvark ground-attack aircraft, and the C-5 Galaxy military transport.
Summoned to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, by NASA in September 1977, he successfully completed the application process and was selected as an astronaut candidate in January of the following year. He resigned from the Air Force as a major and remained with NASA in a civilian capacity. In April 1984, he served as pilot on Mission 41C, which deployed the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) and retrieved, repaired, and deployed the crippled Solar Max spacecraft. Mission 51L was his second shuttle flight. Scobee’s work with NASA underlined another facet of his character: to commit himself totally to worthwhile goals. “When you find something you really like to do,” he explained, “and you’re willing to risk the consequences of that, you really probably ought to go do it.”
Michael John Smith, Pilot
The case of Mike Smith is among the greatest tragedies of Mission 51L. It is not just that he and his crewmates made such valiant efforts to keep each other alive and functioning to the very end, but also the fact that he came so close to space, yet fell so far short of turning a dream into a reality.
Smith was born in Beaufort, N.C., on 30 April 1945. He received a degree in naval science from the Naval Academy in 1967, then entered the Naval Postgraduate School, gaining a master’s credential in aeronautical engineering the following year. He completed flight instruction in Kingsville, Texas, got his aviator’s wings in May 1969, and was assigned to the Advanced Jet Training Command. After two years as an instructor pilot, he was deployed to Vietnam aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, flying A-6 Intruder ground-attack aircraft as part of Attack Squadron 52, along the way earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Smith completed test pilot school in 1974 and was detailed to the Strike Aircraft Test Directorate at Patuxent River, Md., working on missile guidance systems for the A-6. He later served as an instructor at the school and completed two Mediterranean Sea deployments aboard the USS Saratoga.
Ellison Shoji Onizuka, Mission Specialist One
The first Asian-American astronaut, Ellison Onizuka was born on 24 June 1946 in Kealakekua, in the Kona district of western Big Island of Hawaii, the eldest son and second-youngest child of Japanese-American parents. He attended local schools and studied aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, receiving his degree in June 1969 and his master’s only six months later. He entered the Air Force, serving as a flight test engineer and test pilot, and then in August 1974 was accepted into test pilot school. Following graduation in the summer of 1975, he became a squadron test flight engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and was invited to Houston for a week of physiological and psychological evaluation in October 1977. He first flew aboard Mission 51C in January 1985, which carried the shuttle program’s first totally classified payload into orbit.
Judith Arlene Resnik, Mission Specialist Two
Described by her contemporary, astronaut Rhea Seddon, as “flirtatious, funny…just a live wire,” Resnik was an outstanding over-achiever. Born in Akron, Ohio, on 5 April 1949, she was the progeny of a first-generation Jewish-Russian family. Her father, Marvin, was an optometrist and part-time cantor, whilst her mother, Sarah, was a former legal secretary. Soon after entering kindergarten, Resnik was able to read and solve simple mathematical problems. It was whilst at school that she developed her love for mathematics and classical piano. She achieved the highest possible score on the mathematics component of her SAT test, graduated from Firestone High School in Akron in 1966, and was accepted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology to study electrical engineering.
She was initially hesitant about entering engineering, since it was not traditionally a female career path, but realized that her aptitude for mathematics and the sciences would carry her through. “Maybe I liked it,” she once said, “because I was good in it.” Shortly after graduation, she married a fellow engineering student, Michael Oldak, but the pair divorced in 1974. During her short married life, she was employed by RCA, working on custom integrated circuitry for phased-array radar control systems and the specification, project management, and evaluation of control systems. She also undertook work for NASA sounding rocket and telemetry programs. Resnik later joined the National Institutes of Health as a biomedical engineer and staff fellow, working in the neurophysiology laboratory in Bethesda, Md., and at the same time commenced work on her doctorate in electrical engineering. She received her PhD from the University of Maryland in 1977 and joined Xerox as a senior systems engineer. Selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in January 1978, she made her first flight on Mission 41D in August 1984.
Ronald Erwin McNair, Mission Specialist Three
Highly regarded physicist, fifth-degree karate black-belt instructor, and accomplished saxophonist are just three of the “other” pieces of information about Ron McNair, NASA’s second African-American astronaut. (During his early years in Houston, he played in an 18-piece swing band at the Johnson Space Center.) He took his saxophone with him on his first shuttle flight, Mission 41B in February 1984, and intended to play it on Mission 51L for a very special purpose. In the fall of 1985, he began working with musician Jean-Michel Jarre on a piece of music for the album Rendez-Vous; the plan was for McNair to record a saxophone solo and, at one point, even for him to participate in one of Jarre’s concerts, via live feed. Jarre would later honor his fallen friend: the final piece on the Rendez-Vous album came to be known informally as “Ron’s Piece.”
McNair came from Lake City, S.C., where he was born on 21 October 1950, and developed a passion for learning from his parents. “My parents were not pushers,” he once said. “They never told us to do anything, but somehow they created an atmosphere, an environment, where it was the thing to do.” Growing up in an America where black people were still persecuted, McNair found himself in a tricky situation as a young child. One day in 1959, he visited a library, a mile from his home, to borrow some science books. His elder brother, Carl, later recalled the story, as the librarian refused to serve him—“This library is not for coloreds”—and the boy elected to wait whilst she called the police. When two white officers arrived, along with McNair’s mother, Pearl, they could see no apparent disturbance, only a 9-year-old boy sat on the counter.
“Ma’am, what’s the problem?” one of the cops asked.
“He wanted to check out the books,” the librarian replied, and turning to Pearl, continued: “You know your son shouldn’t be down here.”
After a moment’s silence, common sense prevailed and the officer asked: “Why don’t you just give the kid the books?” Pearl assured the librarian that young Ron would take care of them…and insisted that her son thanked the woman on his way out.
McNair’s desire for learning continued and he left Carter High School in 1967 as that year’s valedictorian, before moving on to North Carolina A&T State University to pursue a physics degree. Four years later, he graduated magna cum laude and immediately plunged into doctoral research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). McNair performed some of the world’s earliest development work on hydrogen and deuterium fluoride chemical lasers and high-pressure carbon dioxide lasers. This research contributed to a new understanding and potential applications for highly-excited polyatomic molecules. Completion of his PhD in 1976 was followed by appointment as a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., during which time McNair worked on the development of lasers for isotope separation and photochemistry using non-linear interactions in low-temperature liquids and optical pumping techniques. A little more than a year later, in January 1978, he entered NASA’s astronaut corps.
Gregory Bruce Jarvis, Payload Specialist One
Greg Jarvis was born in Detroit, Mich., on 24 August 1944 and completed high school in New York, then entered the University at Buffalo at the State University of New York to study electrical engineering. He graduated in 1967 and received a master’s degree from Northeastern University in 1969. Jarvis served for the next four years in the Air Force, reaching the rank of captain, and moved to Hughes Aircraft Company’s Space and Communications Group as a communications subsystems engineer for the Marisat program. Whilst at Hughes, he also completed the coursework for a master’s credential in science management at West Coast University in Los Angeles.
Later, from 1978, Jarvis worked on the formulation of concepts and formal proposals for the Synchronous Communications Satellite (SYNCOM) project and subsequently served as a subsystems engineer for the satellites. He was responsible for managing the testing and integration of the first three SYNCOM 4 satellites together with their payload bay cradles and was selected from over 600 Hughes applicants as a payload specialist in July 1984. Originally scheduled to fly with a SYNCOM in early 1985, Jarvis was repeatedly bumped down the shuttle manifest, before ending up on Mission 51L…which, ironically, did not even have a SYNCOM aboard! He was tasked with conducting a series of fluid physics investigations whilst in orbit.
Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Two
Born Sharon Christa Corrigan in Boston, Mass., on 2 September 1948, she was the eldest of five children of accountant Edward Corrigan and teacher Grace Corrigan, with an interesting ancestry which included Irish, Lebanese, German, English, and Native American. She completed high school in Framingham and developed an early fascination with the space program—telling one of her classmates after John Glenn’s flight that, someday, people would travel to the Moon and beyond—before entering Framingham State College to study education and history. She completed her degree in 1970 and, within weeks, married her long-time boyfriend Steven McAuliffe. The couple moved closer to Washington, D.C., to enable him to attend law school, and Christa McAuliffe found employment as an American history teacher at Benjamin Foulois Junior High School in Morningside, Md.
A year later, she moved to Thomas Johnson Middle School in Lanham, teaching history and civics, where she remained until 1978. During this period, she completed a master’s degree in education supervision and administration at Bowie State University and in 1978 the McAuliffes moved to Concord, N.H. She began teaching American history, law, and economics—and a self-designed course, “The American Woman”—at Concord High School in 1982. Three years later, in July 1985, after a lengthy selection campaign, McAuliffe was chosen as the first Teacher in Space.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 45th anniversary of Apollo 14, which saw humanity begin its return to the Moon after the near-disaster of Apollo 13…as well as marking the return to space of America’s first astronaut, Al Shepard.