“Challenger” (STS-51-L) – January 28, 1986 11:39:12

It was clear sky on that day over Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Tuesday, January 28, 1986. At 11:38 EST Space Shuttle Challenger took off  in  mission coded STS-51-L. Among seven members crew was Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe, social studies and CCD teacher from  Concord High School,   parishioner of  St. Peter’s Church in Concord, NH.  73 seconds after lift off disaster broke planned for ten days space mission. Christa McAuliffe was intented to conduct science lessons directly from space as winner of NASA’s Teacher-in-space program.  At 11:39:12 Challenger blasted off over the Ocean.  All seven persons perished.

Christa McAuliffe was the most publicized parishioner of all Vincentian parishes. The 700 household parish, one of four Catholic parishes in Concord NH was taken over by Vincentians from New England Province in September 1983.  From the moment NASA selected Christa as the winner of its Teacher-In-Space competition, she was a celebrity, a heroine. She was given a hometown parade and movie offers;  she was constantly asked to give television and radio interviews; there was a constant flow of newspaper and magazine articles about her.

A nation turned a teacher into a star not for anything she did, but for what she meant to us. The realm of outer space, once limited to daredevil astronauts with perfect physiques, had been opened to a 130-pound teacher from Concord HIgh School and St. Peter’s Parish. Her greatest athletic achievement was pitching for a championship softball team when she was a teenager.

Christa McAuliffe wasn’t the first non-astronaut to get a ticket on a shuttle flight. But she was the first ordinary “citizen astronaut”. 37 years of age, she taught social studies for 13 years and CCD 8th grade for five years at the St. Peter’s Center.

A mother of two children, she carried souvenirs for them into space: her nine year old son Scott’s stuffed frog,  Fleagle; her six year old daughter Caroline’s gold crucifix; and, not to be outdone, her attorney-husband’s class ring.

Christa was full of enthusiasm and responded graciously to her many well-wishers, hand shakers, autograph-hounds, and camera bugs. She believed one day colonies of ordinary people would live and work in orbiting space stations.

Television cameras and radio broadcasters swarmed Father Chester Mrowka CM, pastor of St. Peter’s Church, Concord,  at half-hour Memorial Service for her  at  St. Peter’s that Tuesday night.  He was driven by limousine to the University of New Hampshire for a late night television interview on CBS NIGHTWATCH;  BBC from London made a telephone radio interview; THE MCNEIL/LEHRER NEWS HOUR was televised live from the parlor as was Jane Pauley’s live interview on NBC’s TODAY SHOW.  That did not include the various local television broadcasting station plus WBZ’s Channel 4 from Boston. Photographers from JAPAN MAGAZINE and PARIS MATCH, among others, took various pictures and interviewed neighboring people.

In his Tuesday night homily, Father Chet described McAuliffe as a unique, charismatic person who dared to venture forth with optimism for the future. She was a very ebullient personality. She had a smile for everybody. She was a dedicated wife and mother. Concord is the kind of town where just about everybody knows everybody else. That’s why it hit severely hard.  She was a local celebrity.  To have this happen at a moment of exultation is belief and beyond description. There was a ghastly silence and a great numbness.

A more staid Funeral Mass was held at 11 AM on 3 February 1986, with the press relegated to the area across the street  from the church and now cameras allowed inside the church. The church was filled to capacity with relatives, business associates, and friends with personal ticket invitations only.  The names were taken from a previously prepared list for the anticipated welcoming reception.

Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of the Province of Boston and Bishop Odore Gendron, Bishop of Manchester, presided.  The main celebrant was Rev. James Leary of St. Joseph’s, Bristol, CT, a cousin of Christa.  The Master of Ceremonies was Rev.  William Helmick. Concelebrants were: Rev. Chester Mrowka CM, Pastor of St. Peter’s; Rev. Paul Bouchard and Rev. Christian, chaplains to the Cardinal; Rev. William Quirk, pastor; local clergymen, Rev. Richard Lower, Rev. Maurice, Rev. Aimee Boiselle, Rev. Daniel Messier, Rev. John Sledziona CM and Rev. Mitchell Wanat CM. The state and local government officials were headed by Governor John Sununu. (excerpts from Rev. Edward P. Gicewicz CM, Growth of the New England Province of the Congregation of the Mission 1904-2004, p. 191-192)


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