When NASA announced in 1985 that it was going to select a public school teacher to join astronauts in space, hundreds applied, but one was selected, Christa McAuliffe of Concord New Hampshire. She was an instant sensation as her enthusiastic and infectious personality was the perfect fit for both the program and the nation.

After months of training, the launch was set for January 28, 1986, Cape Canaveral Florida. It was a big local story so all the Boston TV stations sent reporters to Florida to get reaction from McAuliffe’s parents, Grace and Edward Corrigan.  Everyone in the WCVB-TV newsroom was gathered in a close circle, glued to a TV monitor. Just 73 seconds into the launch, we knew something had gone terribly wrong. 

Just 73 seconds into the launch, we knew something had gone terribly wrong.

The spacecraft appeared to explode and disintegrate. A camera shot caught Grace and Edward upright in the grandstands, hands over their mouths. Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts died. Remnants of the rocket and some body parts were later recovered form the ocean floor. While President Ronald Reagan promised it would not be the end of the Teacher in Space program, it was canceled in 1990.

Other civilian in space programs were canceled too.  I had the privilege of sitting on a panel chaired by writer and onetime New York Times public editor Dan Okrent charged with selecting a “Journalist in Space.” Applicants included NBC’s Tom Brokaw, ABC’s Geraldo Rivera and legendary New York Times Science writer Edward O. Wilson. After reviewing dozens of applicants and winnowing the pile, we were notified it was off. It was the end of an exciting era in space exploration and sadly the beginning of a new phenomenon, watching in live real time as a horrible event unfolded.