VIDEO: Leadership Lessons From History – Christa McAuliffe
Sharon Christa McAuliffe was an American schoolteacher and astronaut, and one of the seven crew members killed in the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
For those of us born in the 1970s, many would watch the Challenger disaster live on television as the event was broadcast to students in thousands of classrooms across the country.
I remember the shock and confusion on my teacher’s face as we watched the space shuttle break apart in front of our eyes. Like September 11th, 2001, it is an event that will stay with me forever.
The First Schoolteacher in Space
In 1985, Christa McAuliffe was selected from more than 11,000 applicants to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space project.
As a member of mission STS-51-L, she was planning to conduct experiments and teach two 15-minute classes from space including a tour of the spacecraft, called “The Ultimate Field Trip”, and a lesson about the benefits of space travel, called “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, Why.”
On January 28th, 1986 McAuliffe boarded space shuttle Challenger with the other six crew members of STS-51-L. Across the country, teachers were encouraging their students to countdown to launch as the shuttle prepared for liftoff. 73 seconds into the flight, at an altitude of 48,000 feet, the shuttle exploded and broke apart resulting in the deaths of all seven crewmembers.
Leadership Lessons Found in Tragedy
Christa McAuliffe wasn’t a trained astronaut, pilot or former military officer. She was an educator who found joy in teaching children. Yet, she strapped herself to the top of a rocket and put her trust in her team.
Her courage and confidence, without a shred of insecurity or arrogance, is a trait that every leader should strive for.
In addition, she represented her community with honor. McAuliffe was a beacon of hope to teachers nationwide who could take pride in one of their own flying to the edge of space. In all of her public media appearances leading up to the launch, including Johnny Carson, the Today Show, and Good Morning America, she maintained a love for educators and a professionalism that represented her community well.
At 5pm that same day, President Ronald Reagan would address the nation:
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
To Christa McAuliffe and the crew of STS-51-L, we will never forget you or the most valuable lesson that you taught us that cold January morning: Courage and honor are not abstract values but real leadership traits that can light our lives in our darkest moments.