The Challenger Disaster Put an End to NASA’s Plan to Send Civilians Into Space

On the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle tragedy, a look back at an ambitious plan to put the rest of us into orbit

Christa McAuliffe
Christa McAuliffe received a preview of microgravity during a special flight aboard NASA's KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft. She was to be the first in a series of civilians in space Demotix Live News 3/Demotix/Corbis

When the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, seven Americans died on board. The tragedy put the shuttle program on hiatus for almost three years, and it meant the end of an ambitious—some would say starry-eyed—initiative to give people from all walks of life a chance to experience spaceflight firsthand.

Christa McAuliffe, the 37-year-old high school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, who was killed in the disaster, was to be the first in what NASA envisioned as a series of civilian “payload specialists.” She had won out over 11,000 other applicants to become the first teacher in space.

Had it not been for the Challenger catastrophe, the first journalist in space would have followed within the year. After that, there was talk of an artist in space. Then, perhaps, just about anybody.

The dream of sending ordinary Americans into orbit went back to the earliest days of the shuttle program in the 1970s. But it really took off the following decade, as NASA worked to keep taxpayers and Congress excited about crewed space exploration and willing to support the agency’s multi-billion-dollar budget.

Teacher in Space

In the summer of 1983, as Sally Ride circled the planet aboard Challenger as the first female astronaut, a NASA-appointed task force issued a report that called for sending professional communicators, such as writers and educators, on future missions. As the group explained, “it is desirable for NASA to fly observers on the shuttle for the purpose of adding to the public’s understanding of space flight.”

Novelist James Michener, a space enthusiast and member of the NASA task force, put it more pointedly. “We need people other than MIT physicists to tell us what it’s like up there,” he said.

It soon became obvious that there’d be no shortage of volunteers. “Everybody wants to go,” a NASA spokesperson observed. “It’s not unrealistic to think we’ll get 3,000,000 applicants who want to take that ride.”

The ideal candidate for the first trip, the spokesperson added, was probably “someone who can make an eloquent contribution to the literature.” It might, he suggested, be “a broadcast journalist, a newspaper reporter, an artist, a song writer or even a poet.”

Among those who had already expressed interest, another report noted, were singer/songwriter John Denver, millionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes and the ukulele-strumming, entertainment oddity Tiny Tim, best known for his rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

NASA itself considered recruiting beloved “Sesame Street” character Big Bird, before deciding that—at eight feet plus—he’d be hard to squeeze into the shuttle.

Advocates of the plan downplayed concerns about amateur astronauts putting themselves, or the highly trained pros they accompanied, at serious risk. The task force predicted that about 100 hours of prep work over a two-month period could get them up to speed.  

A bigger challenge, at least from a public relations perspective, was figuring out how to choose among the millions of Americans who might want to sign up. One suggestion was establishing a national lottery that would draw Social Security numbers to determine the lucky winners.

But by the spring of 1984, NASA had decided that the initial honor should go to an educator. Announcing the decision in an August speech, President Ronald Reagan said that the first citizen passenger would be “one of America’s finest—a teacher.” He continued: “When the shuttle lifts off, all of America will be reminded of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation.  I can’t think of a better lesson for our children and our country.”

From the initial outpouring of teacher applicants, NASA narrowed the list to 114 semifinalists, including two from each state, and then to 10 finalists—six women and four men. Of that group, Christa McAuliffe would ultimately get the nod. With President Reagan in the hospital recovering from surgery, Vice President George Bush introduced her to the nation at a White House press conference.

While McAuliffe and her backup, Barbara Morgan, a second-grade teacher from Idaho, trained alongside the astronauts for Challenger’s mission the following January, NASA proceeded with what would have been phase two of its civilian program, choosing the first journalist in space.

Once again, applicants were plentiful, more than 1,700 by official count. The list included former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, whose long career covering the space program seemed to outweigh any worries about his age, then 69. Among the other reported applicants: William F. Buckley, Jr., Geraldo Rivera, Tom Wolfe (author of the acclaimed book The Right Stuff) and, by some accounts, Norman Mailer.

If sending a journalist into space didn’t stir the public imagination in quite the same way as a teacher, the plan met with little opposition—although NASA administrator James M. Beggs was quoted as joking that “There are those who would like to put some journalists into orbit permanently.”

But the laughter was to be short-lived. Barely two weeks after the journalists’ application deadline came the Challenger catastrophe. The group in charge of screening candidates continued at its task, announcing 40 national semifinalists (the venerable Cronkite among them) the following May. But the process went no further. In July, NASA announced that the program had been put on hold and that it would likely be several years before a journalist would fly. As of 2016, it has been 30, and the space shuttles have been retired.

While some astronauts had been skeptical of the program from the beginning, NASA’s and the general public’s enthusiasm for the program soon waned too.

Wolfe also seemed to have second thoughts. In an article published soon after the tragedy, he asked, as only he could, whether spaceflight should “be put back in the hands of those whose profession consists of hanging their hides, quite willingly, out over the yawning red maw?”

Teacher Barbara Morgan would eventually fly on the shuttle, but not until 2007 and only after years of additional training. By then, much of the talk about civilian spaceflight had shifted to commercial initiatives run by civilians themselves, such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and, more recently, Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Buckley, whose application for the journalist program had been turned down, may have foreseen that very possibility. Replying to NASA’s rejection letter, he ventured: “Maybe I’ll figure out a way to get there first via the private sector”—adding, with a final flourish, “in which case I’ll wave.”

Challenger Disaster Live on CNN

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