It's been 30 years since the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the skies over Cape Canaveral, Florida, not long after liftoff. Among the seven-member crew who lost their lives that morning was Christa McAuliffe, the Boston-born, Framingham-raised teacher from Concord High School in New Hampshire, who was the first civilian chosen to take part in a space flight mission as part of NASA's "Teacher in Space" program.
By the time McAulliffe had stepped into the national spotlight, she'd been a part of Micaela Mejia Pond’s life for years.
"What was amazing is she was just like anybody else," Pond said. "She truly was a working mom, a wife, a daughter a wonderful neighbor, a just really sweet person."
Pond grew up just steps from McAuliffe’s family in Concord, N.H., where she regularly babysat McAuliffe’s two children. In 8th grade, McAuliffe was Pond’s Sunday School teacher at St. Peter’s Church.
"She was just the best Sunday school teacher ever cause she would bring snacks and donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts," Pond said.
When Pond got to Concord High, McAullife was there, too, as a Social Studies teacher.
"What made her just so neat as a teacher [is] she would ask advice, you know? 'How would you handle this?' And she would tell you little mundane things [like that] she was upset with her curly hair," Pond said. "She was just human and had such a unique way of just making you feel like you were the most important person in the room."
Pond remembers how thrilled she was for her Junior year to take McAuliffe’s HERstory class-–a history class focused on women that McAulliffe herself had designed. But as it turned out, something else came up.
"Ronald Reagan had announced they wanted to put a civilian into space and they’d chosen a teacher," Pond remembered.
McAulliffe wanted to be that teacher and—true to form—Pond said she invited her students in on every step of the yearlong application process.
"We all would make jokes: 'Yeah, you’re pretty spacey Ms. McAulliffe,' you know," Pond said. "And she was like, ‘No, why not? Somebody’s gotta get it, and why not me?'"
She was just human, and had such a unique way of just making you feel like you were the most important person in the room.
More than 11,000 teachers applied. Pond says she’ll never forget the moment she and her family watched on TV as then-Vice President George H. W. Bush announced which teacher would fly into space.
"We’re all screaming and dancing and crying and I remember my parents just jumping for joy and it was just, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!'" she said.
By the morning of the much-delayed launch in January 1986, excitement at Concord High was at a fever pitch. Pond and her fellow students—as well as press from across the country—were packed into the auditorium to watch. Just over a minute into the mission, the unimaginable happened.
"I felt so horrible for her family," Pond said. "I remember having nightmares for months, because it was just it was unrelenting. They just wouldn’t stop showing the explosion. 'Roger. Go with throttle up.' That whole 72 seconds was just ... to this day, 30 years later, it’s still hard to talk about that part."
Thanks in large part to McAulliffe’s inspiration, Pond has spent the majority of those 30 years as a teacher herself.
"To me she was just a neighbor and just a regular person who did an extraordinary thing and yet to see the amount of impact she had a year later—and now 30 years later where I think there’s over 50 challenger educator centers across the country," Pond said. "My hometown has a planetarium. I think she’d be just humbled and amazed."
Pond keeps a picture of McAulliffe nearby, which she occasionally finds herself winking at after a small classroom triumph—or turning to for strength. Strength, she admits, is something she increasingly needs a little more of these days, as she navigates an educational system that she finds increasingly difficult for teachers.
"I think about guns in schools and the standardized testing and how teaching and education has changed since she taught her HERstory class," Pond said.
Still, Pond lives across the street from the elementary school in Virginia where she teaches to be accessible to her students. She lets them know when she makes mistakes and strives to find unique ways to inspire them. It’s an approach that has earned her multiple awards; an approach she learned from McAuliffe.
"I’ve remained true to her style and maintained her vision of reaching for the stars and never giving up," Pond said. "When she said things like that it wasn’t cheesy. Unfortunately, a lot of times those kinds of phrases can be cheesy. ‘Oh, reach for the stars.’ But, my God, she did it. And no one will ever be able to take that away from her."