Carolyn Staudt remembers the knock on her classroom door on Jan. 28, 1986.
In came members of the basketball team of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where she was teaching geometry, chemistry and physics at the time. The players, all visibly upset, had left practice to bring her the news that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded just 73 seconds after liftoff.
They came to her because they knew she was interested in spaceflight.
And they knew she had wanted to be aboard that spacecraft.
Staudt was an applicant for the Teacher in Space Project, a NASA program developed to allow teachers to fly on space missions. Although she didn’t make it through the winnowing process, the experience gave her a special interest in the Challenger mission.
One of the crew members on board was New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had been selected to become the first teacher in space. She was one of the seven crew members who died that day, 30 years ago.
Staudt was among some 640 teachers in Ohio and 10,000 nationwide who had applied for the position that McAuliffe won. So was Carol Remington, a Shreve resident who was then a fifth-grade teacher at Killbuck Elementary School in Holmes County.
Narrowing the list
The application was rigorous, Staudt and Remington recalled — pages and pages that included essay writing, references, career information, documentation of public and community service, and a proposal of a lesson to be taught from space. Staudt remembers hers was growing and fossilizing a snowflake.
Three local teachers made it to the list of Ohio’s 12 semifinalists: Virginia Cook of the former Erwine Middle School in Coventry Township, David Koch of Hoover High School in North Canton and Ronald Douglas of the Wayne County Schools Career Center in Smithville. Ohio’s list was eventually narrowed to two candidates, from Newark and Centerville, but neither made the final cut.
Remington, who had a passion for space science, said the Teacher in Space Project came along at a time when space travel still captured the nation’s fancy.
“It was fresh. It was new,” she said. Launches were still being televised live. NASA had a toll-free number that provided updates on the space program.
She was in her 40s at the time, older than most of the other applicants, she said. But “I decided I was going to try for this. If you don’t try, you don’t get anything.”
Although Remington didn’t get to fly in space, she did get to attend a weeklong workshop at NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, now Glenn Research Center. She still has the spacesuit she was given that week.
She attended lectures, worked on activities and viewed the center’s facilities, including its supersonic wind tunnel. She also rode in the human gyroscope, a spinning contraption that creates a feeling of weightlessness. “I just remember it was something that was uncomfortable,” she said.
When the shuttle exploded, Remington was eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge. A librarian came in to tell her and her colleagues the news.
The woman had a reputation as a jokester, she said. At first they didn’t believe her.
Remington is now 75 and president of the Ohio Retired Teachers Association. She keeps a memento of that day on her wall, an acrylic painting of the explosion done by former student Claude Ruston Baker. The artist, who has since come to be known for his murals, painted it immediately after the blast and brought it to her that afternoon, because he knew it would be meaningful to her.
She still believes the opportunity to travel in space was a risk worth taking. “If it’s something you’re passionate about,” she said, “you take the risk.”
Staudt agrees — so much so that she was motivated by the Challenger tragedy to develop innovative teaching methods to help her students better understand the importance of breaking new ground, even when potential danger is involved.
Staudt had long been interested in the work of NASA, ever since her mother worked on the Apollo spacecraft as a programmer at North American Rockwell. She’d visited the runways used by the company’s test pilots, two of whom had died. She knew about the dangers involved in pushing limits.
So as her students grieved after the Challenger accident, she searched for a way to help them put the loss in perspective.
“They need to see beyond this,” she remembers thinking. “There are risks, but there are so many gains.”
Staudt hit on the idea of creating space simulations to help her students better understand the strides made by the space program and appreciate the importance of science and mathematics in solving complex, interrelated problems. That led to the creation of Moonbase America, a project she oversaw as a teacher at Copley High School.
During the 1991 project, 84 students spent a week living and performing experiments in a series of domes that replicated a colony on the moon. The project was followed by Seabase America, a simulation of life at the bottom of the ocean.
Staudt, 61, now works for the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit laboratory in Massachusetts that works to incorporate the best features of technology in the classroom to improve education.
And she still dreams of flying in space.
“It’s still on my bucket list to wake up one day and see a sunrise on Mars,” she said.
“There’s possibilities,” she said. “It’s still a dream.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MBBreckABJ, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.