Space & Innovation

Christa McAuliffe's 'Lost Challenger Lessons': Photos

Christa McAuliffe was to be the first teacher in space. Tragically, she died when NASA Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on lift-off. But her legacy lives on. Here are six lessons she planned on teaching while living in microgravity.

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The Challenger explosion of Jan. 28, 1986

-- 30 years ago today -- claimed the lives of seven astronauts and required NASA to rethink safety procedures for the shuttle program. The loss of life included the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, who planned to offer six recorded lessons (and some live ones as well) for elementary school children.

Those lessons were reconstructed in 2007 in this NASA document, called the "Lost Lessons".

"Though lost in the sense that they perished with Challenger and her crew, recounting, redoing, and examining them is, in a sense, a resurrection. As such, they become a tribute to Christa and her courageous crewmates, the Challenger Seven," wrote project editor Jerry Woodfill in the introduction.

MORE: Remembering Challenger 30 Years After Disaster

While the loss of McAuliffe was deeply felt, reconstructing the lessons became a more happy occasion. In 2007, Barbara Morgan -- McAuliffe's backup for the "teacher in space" slot on the space shuttle -- was about to fly and wanted to do some of the lessons in orbit. Using archival footage, hardware notes and any NASA documents historians could find, NASA reassembled the plans as best as possible. Here is a brief summary of the six recorded lessons.

On long-term space missions, it's very likely that astronauts will grow food. McAuliffe planned to demonstrate a closed environment that would grow plants in microgravity. (You can see a chamber she was testing in the photograph here.) Her team initially planned to use white beans, but it turns out they were not so convenient for a space shuttle flight because they create large plants shortly after growing. In the low light of the shuttle, they would become even more "leggy" or elongated. Instead, the team decided to use mung beans, which fit better on the shuttle and had been used previously.

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Magnetism is a universal force, but it looks especially cool in microgravity. You know those magnetic field lines you probably saw in a high-school lesson? In space, they are produced in three dimensions. McAuliffe wanted to show that using a compass, a bar magnet, and a container full of iron fillings. Of note, technicians removed the magnet's plating material to make sure that the elements in it (including nickel) did not "off-gas" and contaminate the shuttle environment.

The lesson plan

was later modified to use pieces of iron wire instead of filings, due to the risk of causing harm if the filings came into contact with electronic equipment or were accidentally swallowed by crew members.

Watch the video of McAuliffe planning the experiment here


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Any student of rocketry understands Newton's laws of motion, especially the one where an action causes an equal and opposite reaction (Newton's 3rd Law). McAuliffe planned to use a billiard ball and a pool ball to accomplish this lesson. One key challenge was making sure they didn't just float away randomly, so the team decided to use an actuator inside of a tube to hold the ball, compress a coil spring and then fire. The experiment was planned to be performed in front of a small backdrop put against the mid-deck locker doors, so that it was easy to view.

Bubbles are fun no matter what environment you are in, but in microgravity they take on something special. The challenge is, however, making sure that the liquid is contained and doesn't just randomly splash on something important. The experiment was planned to be conducted inside a transparent lexan bottle, using blue food coloring for the water to make it easier to see. Water-soluble gelatin capsules were planned to be placed inside the bottle to create a reaction.

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Chromatography -- the separation of mixtures -- is easy to show using ink, paper and water. The lesson could be done easily in the classroom, too, for those that wanted to follow along closely. It called for putting ink on a piece of paper, hanging it up, adding some water, and watching the water dissolve the ink. On Earth, the water resists gravity due to something called "capillary action", or a liquid's ability to move in narrow spaces independent of gravity. The water carries the ink along and deposits it into layers, similar to how you see sediments deposited on a riverbed.

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This lesson intended to answer this question: "What are the applications in space for simple machines like the wheel and axle, lever, inclined plane, wedge, and pulley?" McAuliffe planned to use an aluminum wedge as an inclined plane and wedge. It also had an insert for a screw. Additionally, a pulley was planned to be attached to a locker in the shuttle's middeck, to pull a small car up the wedge. "This demonstrates that the wheels are useless on the car, lacking friction with the plane, but that the wheel functions well as a pulley to change the direction of a force," NASA wrote in the document.

MORE: Remembering Challenger 30 Years After Disaster