It was supposed to be the beginning of an era, "The Teacher Mission," as it was widely known, sending the first "ordinary person" into orbit with a goal of "demystifying" the technical world of space travel.
But Sharon Christa McAuliffe's "ultimate field trip" ended in fiery disaster off the Florida coast yesterday, before the eyes of millions of TV viewers, schoolchildren, tourists and teachers -- many who had hoped her voyage would generate renewed public enthusiasm for American education and the often criticized teaching profession.
A high school history teacher with an intense interest in the contributions of common people throughout history, McAuliffe, 37, saw herself as a pioneer like the women of the wagon train days; a baby boomer raised on the space program in its infancy; a feminist once envious of the opportunities for space travel accorded primarily to men and, first and foremost, an educator with a yearning to contribute to the history she taught.
"I cannot join the space program and restart my life as an astronaut, but this opportunity to connect my abilities as an educator with my interests in history and space is a unique opportunity to fulfill my early fantasies," McAuliffe wrote on her application for the program.
Drawn from an initial list of more than 11,400 applicants, McAuliffe, a Massachusetts native with long wavy brown hair, maintained her aplomb and a casual sense of being the "ordinary person," despite the publicity and media attention that swirled around her as the first teacher scheduled to journey into space.
McAuliffe planned to conduct two live lessons during the flight, the first called "The Ultimate Field Trip" to detail daily life aboard the shuttle, and the second called "Where We've Been, Where We're Going, Why," which was aimed at helping students understand the goals of space exploration.
To teachers, McAuliffe became a symbol of their struggling profession. That she came from a high school in New Hampshire, the state with the lowest average salary for teachers, seemed to focus national attention on teachers' long-held sentiment that they are not been accorded their due respect.
McAuliffe herself, aware of the significance of her role, said at one point, "I'm hoping that this is going to elevate the teaching profession in the eyes of the public and of those potential teachers out there, and hopefully, maybe one of the secondary objectives of this is students are going to be looking at me and perhaps thinking of going into teaching as professions."
After yesterday's tragedy, the education community was shellshocked. "She was a symbol of hope and of optimism for teachers and students around the nation," said Albert Shanker, president of the 700,000-member American Federation of Teachers. "She represented her 2 million colleagues with great distinction, and as fellow teachers, we were enormously proud of her."
Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the 1.7 million-member National Education Association, said McAuliffe's selection "was a tremendous boost for the teaching profession, which had been in a state of siege for a number of years, and it was a boost for the children, by rekindling an interest in science and technology."
McAuliffe graduated from Framingham (Mass.) State College in 1970, the same year she married Steven James McAuliffe, a lawyer.
McAuliffe began her teaching career in Maryland in 1970, as an eighth grade American history instructor at Benjamin Foulois Junior High School in Morningside. She received a master's degree in education from Bowie State College in Maryland and taught history and civics at Thomas Johnson Middle School in Lanham during 1971-78.
She returned to the Northeast for the 1980 school year, and was a junior high school history teacher until 1982, when she began teaching courses in economics, law, American history and a course she designed called "The American Woman" at Concord High School.
Besides her husband, she is survived by two children, Scott, 9, and Caroline, 6, and her parents, Edward C. and Grace Corrigan.
McAuliffe had said she had no fears about space travel, telling an interviewer last July: "Today's space shuttle isn't the type of thing, I think, that anybody really looks at with fear that there's going to be an accident . . . . I feel, probably, safer doing something like that than driving around the New York streets."
Still, after her selection, her life insurance company canceled her policy. But last week, she received a surprise gift: a $1 million insurance policy donated by Corroon and Black Inspace Inc., an international satellite insurance firm.