Ray Duckler: Following Christa’s lead 28 years later, a teacher aims high
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger is seen in this 1986 photo. From left to right: Ellison Onizuka, Mike Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Greg Jarvis, Ron McNair and Judith Resnik. (AP Photo/NASA)
Lizzie Rosenberger. Courtesy photo.
Two decades ago, during warm summer nights, Lizzie Rosenberger ignored the mosquitoes and lay on the cool grass outside her Concord home, stargazing, dreaming and wondering.
She thought about galaxies and planets, her mind racing like a rocket. She thought about exploring and adventure, about risk and science and knowledge.
And she thought about Christa McAuliffe, the late Concord High School social studies teacher.
To longtime residents here, we can drop the surname.
Christa says enough.
“She was a teacher we learned about in grade school,” said Rosenberger, whose own teaching career has brought her to an elite school in New York City. “And as a teacher and member of the community trying to go to space and bring back what she learned to her students, that got me into the idea of being an astronaut and studying space.”
While Christa is not the sole reason Rosenberger – an adventurous spirit who played college lacrosse and worked in Australia’s rain forest – will fly in a NASA program this spring for educational reasons, she’s certainly part of the formula.
The 28th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, which took the life of Christa and six astronauts, is Tuesday. Meanwhile, Rosenberger has earned the chance to fly 45,000 feet above Earth, more than 5,000 feet higher than a commercial airline, in a modified 747 to collect data and bring back information to her students.
Similar to what Christa once set out to do in 1986.
She’s been chosen for something called SOFIA, or Stratospheric Observatory of Infrared Astronomy. Rosenberger, whose parents still live in Concord, was one of 24 teachers selected among 160 applicants nationwide for a program that began four years ago.
She’ll look through a telescope, gather data and bring it back to her science classes in New York City.
“It’s a flying laboratory with scientists,” Dr. Dana Backman, manager of the SOFIA outreach program, said from his office at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
“The teachers will be paired with a group of astronomers, and they’ll understand what their investigation is, watch them do it, maybe help them a little, sit at the console with them and push buttons. The teachers are like apprentices.”
Backman is just one element that neatly connects to Christa and Tuesday’s anniversary. He was a young astronomer the day the Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. Plus, he’s from Connecticut, and his parents recently retired to New Hampshire.
“I was affected by what happened,” Backman said. “I wanted space travel to become routine. I was still thinking then that I might be going on that someday, and I had applied to be an astronaut.”
The world watched a huge government agency irresponsibly rush to unveil its teacher-in-space project, launching the shuttle in freezing temperatures that led to equipment damage and an explosion shortly after liftoff.
Backman pulled no punches when asked about NASA’s mistake, saying, “If you go up in the space shuttle and a meteor hits you, the astronauts would have accepted that. But I don’t think the astronauts could accept the idea that it was just some bureaucratic snafu that killed the crew. Terrible.”
Now we turn to Lizzie’s mother, Teresa Rosenberger, who leads the strategic consulting arm of a Manchester law firm. Back in the 1980s, Teresa worked on the speech-writing staff for President Ronald Reagan, whose task it was to soothe the nation after the Challenger disaster.
Teresa was an insider at the time, watching Reagan’s address from her office inside the White House complex.
“He talked about schoolchildren, about taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons,” Teresa said. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave, and he was pulling us into the future, and we continued to follow him.”
Five years later, after Teresa’s husband accepted a job at St. Paul’s School, the Rosenbergers moved to the city in which Christa once taught.
Lizzie loved the newly opened planetarium, named for Christa. She loved hearing about Christa’s infectious laugh, her ability to connect with everyone, her thirst to understand the unknown.
And she loved those warm nights, with the bugs down here and the stars up there. After a year at Concord High, Lizzie transferred to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and used the giant telescope there to find things like the Orion Nebula.
“(Christa) got me super interested in space and how we can see what’s up there,” Lizzie said.
She studied science and astronomy in college and became a teacher, first in a tough school in the South Bronx, then on the opposite end of the spectrum, at a place called Avenues: The World School, which opened in September 2012.
Students from kindergarten through 12th grade attend at a cost of $43,000 a year. Don’t ask Lizzie about Tom and Katie’s daughter, Suri Cruise, because school rules forbid her from discussing the elite student body and their high-powered millionaire parents.
But with money comes great programs, and the administration gave its support when Lizzie approached about applying for NASA’s SOFIA project.
Christa had been part of Lizzie’s curriculum, right down to the clip of the Challenger exploding, with those fluffy white plumes of smoke separating on the world stage, the sky a brilliant blue, before anyone realized that history had taken a different form.
“I discussed it with the head of the grade,” said Lizzie, who showed the disaster to her fourth-graders. “She said it was part of our history, and they could step out if they didn’t want to watch it. I prepped them for it, how we leave the atmosphere and it works most of the time, but a couple of times it’s been devastating.
“They knew seven people, including a teacher, had lost their lives,” Lizzie continued. “They understood what had happened.”
Not quite space
This trip isn’t quite so dangerous. The 747 will not leave Earth’s atmosphere, instead rising above its water vapor line before a door the size of a garage opens on the plane’s side for the telescope.
When asked about gaining clearance four years ago for an educational tool like this, in light of the Challenger episode, Backman, the outreach manager, said, “They were always safety-conscious, but the idea that we have teachers and we’re going to put them on this facility, we had to go through lots of hoops to assure everyone at NASA headquarters that this would all be fine.”
Liftoff is this spring, in April or May. Lizzie said she’ll bring back information on an array of topics: infrared light, piloting an airplane and telescopes, and career opportunities in aviation and space flight and science.
Teresa sounded like a mother, proud and nervous, when she said, “Will I worry? Yes. Will I think about Christa McAuliffe, her courage to explore and to take risks in order to expand her knowledge and that of others? Yes.”
But Mom is not surprised. Not after her daughter looked at the stars and wondered about space, while other kids were watching TV. And not after Lizzie explored a rain forest in Australia and taught troubled kids in the South Bronx.
Christa would have loved what’s next.
“I’m more excited than nervous,” Lizzie said.