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I Touch the Future,' Part V : The McAuliffe Family Is Finding Signs of Hope Amid the Grief

What happened to Christa McAuliffe's husband and children after the shuttle explosion? Shattered, her husband fled into seclusion while the nation mourned. Christa was finally buried May 1, 1986, four months after her death. This is the conclusion of a five-part series, which coincided with the first anniversary of the Challenger disaster, Jan. 28.

January 29, 1987|ROBERT T. HOHLER

Six months after Challenger lifted off, Christa McAuliffe's remains lay in an unmarked grave overlooking a winding river and the evergreen hills near her New Hampshire home. Two freshly planted maples framed the burial spot, a pot of red geraniums blooming between them. A few tiny American flags snapped in the summer wind, and hidden in the grass beneath the flags was a lapel pin depicting the launch of a space shuttle. It said, "I want to GO."

Those were the only visible signs that Christa had returned to Concord from shuttle mission 51-L. Her husband, Steve, wanted it that way. He had watched Challenger burst from its giant steam cloud and rocket skyward at twice the speed of sound. He had seen it explode 73 seconds into flight, sending Christa and her companions to their deaths. Then he had fled into seclusion, sad, lonely and angry, trying to cope with the tragedy and to protect his private memories of a wife whose life and death had become so public.

Steve had leaned on Christa. She had nurtured and counseled and shepherded him for so long that while her absence in the months before the Challenger mission helped him prepare for life as a single parent, nothing had prepared him for living without her.

Steve stayed with 8-year-old Scott and 5-year-old Caroline in Florida in the days after the explosion, trying to help them understand what had happened before they returned to a home filled with reminders of their mother. Scott soon accepted Christa's death, but Caroline needed time. She remembered Christa coming and going so often in recent months that she believed Christa would return again. Caroline was confused, and not until she went to Disney World with the wife of one of Steve's law partners a couple of days later did she fully understand her mother wasn't coming back. She was sad. She asked if she could ride on Dumbo.

The next morning, on the day Christa was to have taught from space, Steve flew from Florida to the Johnson Space Center for one of his few public appearances after Challenger went down. He sat before a building where Christa had trained, his head bowed as he listened to the President eulogize the Challenger crew. The 539th Air Force Band played "God Bless America," Staff Sgt. Susan Arnold's silver trumpet falling silent as four T-38s burst in formation out of the northern sky, one of them disappearing into the clouds--a symbol of the lost crew.

"The air was so full of sorrow," Arnold said. "I had no music left inside of me."

The music started in Concord soon after it stopped in Houston. The 1,200 students at Concord High, dozens of whom had sought counseling to cope with Christa's death, gathered in the school gymnasium to share their feelings in three hours of personal remembrances, poetry and song. The service ended to the soulful melody of "Life in a Northern Town," a ballad about the chilling aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination and the final images of a friend who died too young.

Steve and the children returned to Concord amid a worldwide display of sympathy. The Olympic flame burned again in Los Angeles, candles flickered in chapels across the country and porch lights intended to honor the first teacher in space instead shone as a memorial to her. From Hawaii to New Hampshire, schools, libraries, airports, streets, bridges, mountains, summer camps and holidays were dedicated to Christa and her companions. Millions of dollars poured into scholarship funds. A woman offered to replace Scott's Fleegle, a stuffed toy that Christa had taken aboard the doomed shuttle, with her own stuffed frog named Fleegle. Others asked to make Scott another Fleegle. Within days, tens of thousands of songs and poems and flowers and letters arrived in Concord from as far as China and Poland.

In a prison workshop two miles from Christa's home, a former Concord High student serving a life sentence for murder helped build a memorial to Christa, a wooden plaque inscribed with the message "Reach for the Stars." The plaque stood at the high school in a storage room filled with memorials from as near as New Hampshire and as far away as Japan. It stood for the impact of Christa's death.

"Do you think there will ever be a day I don't think about this?" Zachary Fried asked.

Christa's survivors--her family, friends, colleagues, students and neighbors--faced unsettling news in the weeks after her death. For many of them, sorrow turned to anger amid indications that Challenger's mission failed not because of technological imperfections but human error. Then came more disturbing news. After the survivors believed for 38 days that Christa and her crew mates had died instantly, consumed by a giant fireball, Challenger's cabin and the crew's remains were raised from the floor of the Atlantic, producing enough evidence for NASA to determine that the astronauts had survived at least several seconds after the explosion, possibly until they struck the ocean surface. The anger grew.

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