When she was chosen last July to ride the shuttle, the one teacher out of 10 finalists pared down from thousands, Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe proclaimed, "When that shuttle goes, there might be one body, but there's going to be 10 souls that I'm taking with me."
And yesterday, the nine others watched with the same stunned horror as the rest of the nation.
Teacher Judith M. Garcia had just completed a workshop at her Fairfax County school; she was walking in a corridor when she heard the news. Teacher David M. Marquart awakened in Scotts Valley, Calif., to see the fireball of the shuttle on his television. In West Lafayette, Ind., math and computer teacher Robert Foerster was watching it live at a satellite dish store as he and the owner prepared to take a dish over to Foerster's school. At Eastern High School in Washington, biology teacher Nancy Cooksy, one of the 114 semifinalists, heard about it from another biology teacher, who came to her classroom. As they spoke of it afterward, it seemed as if part of their souls had indeed disintegrated with that shuttle.
Her voice breaking, her reddened blue eyes welling with tears, Garcia said, "You don't make progress in anything without taking chances."
She recalled the last time she saw McAuliffe:
"The last thing I said to her was, 'Christa, just like you said, you're going to carry my spirit with you,' " Garcia said. "She reached over and hugged me and said, 'I know.' "
"We were so close together that to a certain extent we really were there with her," said Marquart, 44, a business and computer science teacher from Boise High School in Boise, Idaho, who was one of the 10 finalists.
They had trained together last summer in Houston and Washington and gotten together in August to write a curriculum. They wrote to each other and chatted with McAuliffe by conference call several times in the past few months. Last week they had been reunited in Florida with the rest of the initial ip,1 114 finalists for workshops and a chance to see the shuttle launch.
In the wake of the shuttle disaster -- some of the teachers just back to their homes from Florida -- they talked with sorrow as well as an extraordinary composure, grace and eloquence. Clearly, they do have something called "the right stuff."
Michael Metcalf, 39, a government and geography teacher in Hardwick, Vt., was watching the shuttle launch at Goddard Space Flight Center where he is spending the year. "I was watching it and said very quickly, 'That's wrong,' " he recalled. "I glanced at the clock -- I had looked at it before -- and the elapsed time seemed to be just about a minute. At about two minutes and eight seconds after liftoff, or two minutes, 11 seconds, the SRB -- that's the solid rocket boosters -- normally separate. So there was a minute before there should have been any activity, other than simply rising through the sky majestically. I was heartened a bit when I saw something in the sky continue on, but . . . " His voice faded.
Later in Hardwick, David Ford, the principal of Hazen Union School, got a call from his stunned teacher, Michael Metcalf. "He wanted me to check to make sure we'd be flying the flag at the school at half-mast," said Ford.
Garcia, sitting at a table in the library of the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, where she teaches French and Spanish, recalled that before McAuliffe was selected, astronaut Francis R. (Dick) Scobee -- the captain of yesterday's flight -- explained to all the teacher finalists "that this was not an adventure . . . It was also a very serious matter with dangers involved," Garcia said.
"It was not a firecracker that was going to be lighted under our tail," she said of the shuttle. "We weren't playing games and we knew it. We accepted the possibility a tragedy would occur."
David Marquart had just flown into California from Florida late the night before. "I was devastated," said Marquart, who is spending his year working at the Ames Research Center in California. "It was actually unbelievable at first." He called his wife shortly after he saw it on television. "We just talked awhile," said Barbara Marquart, still in Boise. "He was very quiet, very sad."
"It was shock and disbelief," said Foerster, describing his reaction at what he saw on television. He pretty much knew right away. "I had a sick feeling in my stomach that something wrong had happened. One of the things I learned from working at NASA was that there was so much potential energy in that large tank."
When Cooksy, 54, got the news at the door of her classroom, she couldn't quite believe it. "I thought someone had it wrong," she recalled. Once she saw it on television, she realized what the rest of the nation already knew.
"I'm not sure how I feel right now," she said. "I have several feelings. First there's the irony of it. Someone like Christa with a family had been chosen. It's a charming family but with the risk involved," she said, her words trailing off. Cooksy has four grown children. "I feel more sadness than anything else, and the fact that all of us knew this is a risk you take . We never talked about that. That was very, very low in our thoughts."
The risk of it all was something that neither the teachers nor NASA talked much about, according to the teachers. "In Florida last week, it was alluded to," said Cooksy. "At the workshops, a teacher suggested that NASA might consider sending a student on a future mission. And a NASA official said that there is still some risk involved in this, and no one would want to take responsibility for a very young person going up." Cooksy's voice turned rueful. "How can anyone not know? I don't think we needed to be told about it."
It was something they simply acknowledged in their own ways. "I never did really feel deep down that there would be a problem," said Marquart. "I know the safety features that they put in, but you have to come to grips with that feeling within yourself that you are not immortal."
You just don't focus on it. "We all realized intellectually that it's there," Metcalf said. "Just as when I was an Air Force pilot in the early '70s -- I knew it was dangerous, but I didn't think about it as such. You go out to do your job and you come back in at night."
Though the 10 finalists may not all be considered teachers turned astronauts, they were all teachers admitted to the fraternity that is the space program. All are on year-long leaves from their schools to work for NASA in different parts of the country.
"The 10 of us were very, very close," said Marquart. "Christa was a lovely gal. We had an opportunity that was unique. We went through a training period together, two, 2 1/2 weeks . . . We were all experiencing the same thing."
They all spoke with warmth and affection about McAuliffe. "Christa was a really wonderful person," Metcalf said. "She was a very caring person. She taught American history through the diaries and journals of common people -- women crossing the country in Conestoga wagons. She believed the measure of history is the measure of how people lived, and not necessarily the gains and losses of political campaigns or battles."
"We knew they were going to choose one teacher," said Robert Foerster. "But we all had equally important things to do educationwise. The biggest thing was not whether you rode on the shuttle."
But make no mistake. They wanted to be chosen. Yesterday's tragedy seems not to have deterred them from wanting a berth on another shuttle. Judith Garcia said she hopes NASA does not cancel the teacher-in-space project, and "I can't even imagine what Christa might think if this were dropped now."
Would she step aboard a space shuttle now? "I would," Garcia answered quickly and firmly. She said she last saw McAuliffe a week and a half ago. McAuliffe and backup teacher-astronaut Barbara R. Morgan visited Garcia's apartment in Cocoa Beach. The three played hooky and visited nearby Epcot Center for a break from the rigorous training schedule for the flight. "She was extremely up about it," Garcia said. There was no discussion of danger.
Metcalf longed to be back in Florida with the group. "A lot of my friends are there, Christa's friends," he said. "I would have liked to have been able to be there and help the group get through its grief."
"It's a tragic accident but we're going to have to continue with exploration, find the problem that happened, solve it and continue," Marquart said.
"Space flight has become routine, and I think that's important," said Metcalf. "It had to be routine. Unfortunately tragedies happen. Tragedies can happen between home and the store, too . . . I don't think any of us think of the dangers we face every day."
"I would have loved to go -- would still love to go," said Cooksy. "But I know I had some disadvantages," she said, citing her older age. As for the risk, as demonstrated yesterday, she said, "I still take airplanes -- in spite of the fact that they have crashed dramatically."
Mostly, there was a sense of sorrow and loss.
"I knew all those people on board," said Foerster. "So I lost seven friends."