25th Anniversary of the Challenger Tragedy – Thoughts and Pictures from NASA Retiree and Kentucky Teacher in Space Sue Darnell Ellis Honoring Christa and the Crew


25th Anniversary of the Challenger Tragedy – KY Teacher in Space Sue Darnell Ellis Honoring Christa and the Crew

On Facebook many of my friends have been sharing their thoughts with me and have written what happened to them on that day, 25 years ago. I want each of my friends who have already written and those will still write to me about their experiences to know that it really helps me to not feel so alone on this anniversary date. Everyone remembers where they were when they learned about the Challenger, President Kennedy being shot and the planes hitting the World Trade Center on Sept 11.

The United States with our White House family of youthful Kennedys was often referred to as ‘Camelot’ during the Kennedy years. ‘Camelot’ ended instantly with sudden and shocking death of our young President Kennedy. With his death, life changed to a certain degree nationwide for everyone. Certainly since the September 11 downing of the World Trade Center, the whole world has experienced numerous changes. Everyone was shocked and stunned by the Challenger but most personal lives did not really change, BUT MINE DID. In that moment, all of the dreams I had dreamed blew up in split seconds right before my eyes, as I witnessed the launch live and in-person.

From the moment I heard that a teacher would fly in space I was dreaming about what that could mean to students, to teachers, to the public, to public interest in the sciences of space, and to the public level of knowledge about how much science and discovery does for our lives. Being a graduate with degrees in Mathematics and Science, I dreamed of being a teacher teaching from space, and of being enabled to motivate students to seriously study mathematics and science so that they would have a sound bas and thus be able to better the world in which we live. After I decided to apply to become the first teacher in space, as   I wrote my answers on NASA’s Teacher in Space Application, I dreamed of all the good that could be done in education with NASA’s support. My dreaming grew exponentially when I learned that I was selected to represent Kentucky in NASA’s Teacher in Space Program.

NASA flew all finalists to Washington DC in June 1985 to be honored and to compete for the one seat on board the space shuttle to be NASA’s First Teacher in Space. Our experiences there in Washington were rich and varied. While visiting Kentucky’s congressmen and senators, I learned I had the needed support to serve Kentucky to the best of my ability and boy did my dreaming for Kentucky programs sky rocket! While meeting the President and being honored at the White House, my dreams expanded and grew by leaps and bounds  as I was seeing  the support of the nation that was behind this endeavor. While being taught by the Challenger crew members, I dreamed of lessons I could create for students and workshops I could do for teachers. While studying with NASA Aerospace Education Specialists as our teachers, my dreams focused into real lesson plans and actual workshop outlines for teachers. While being interviewed by Deke Slayton, former moonwalker and Apollo Astronaut, I dreamed of history lessons all students needed to be woven into their education. The week in Washington was fertile ground for me, for my dreams and for my plans for serving NASA, Kentucky and the nation as a NASA Ambassador.

Thoughts swirl wildly in my head as I try to put my thoughts and feelings to paper about this 25th Anniversary, about Christa, about the Challenger, about the lives lost, about their families, about NASA, about my life, about my son born during that year, about Barbara Morgan who became the First Educator Astronaut, about the other Teacher in Space finalists with whom I will forever be kindred spirits and about my role since that tragic day in Keeping the Dream Alive. My thoughts include North Marshall Junior High School and the magical life I experienced as a new, green, extremely excited, truly motivated and maybe even over-zealous teacher. I remember with love the teachers who encouraged me to apply, the same teachers who supported me during the ups and downs associated with the application and selection process, my students who became my number one advocates after they found out I was applying, and my students who write to me to this day and share their hearts and souls with me. I feel I was “called” to teaching like pastors are “called” into the ministry. I feel too I was “called” to apply for the Teacher in Space Program in the very same way. I am a person of faith and believe with all of my heart that God has directed my life through all of these 25 years. I feel profoundly blessed to have lived this life and to be alive and well now trying to share my thoughts 25 years later.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that January 28, 1986 changed my life forever. My thoughts turn to my decisions made on that fateful day and the snowball affect that those decisions had on my life. I witnessed the tragedy that shook America. I was still at Kennedy Space Center after NASA Teacher In Space Launch Conference had officially ended, waiting through the canceled launch dates, planning to still be present on THE day that Christa would become THE FIRST Teacher in Space. (I was able to wait because I was on family leave from Marshall County Schools and North Marshall Jr. High with my 4 month old son, Seth Michael Darnell Jr.  Most of the other Teachers in Space, from the other states, had to go home and back to their classrooms.)

On January 28, 1986, the launch of STS-51L had already been rescheduled multiple times, canceled twice before and we had boarded busses and ridden to Kennedy Space Center from Orlando and back twice expecting to see the launch. Originally there were three busses full of educators but today there was only one bus and it was sparsely populated at that. On the two previous days, despite the cold we had gotten off the busses, wandered the VIP Viewing Site, sat in the bleachers and waited; waited for the announcements for the launch count and sequence that never came. Today, we all stayed on the warm bus and waited; waited until the very last minute when a decision to launch or not had been made. When NASA approved the launch, despite the frigid temperatures, those of us remaining were all surprised because the weather conditions were not that different from the conditions that existed on previous days when NASA did cancel. I distinctly remember thinking that they had decided to go ahead despite the weather and take a chance.

On the day we lost the Challenger and her crew, January 28, 1986, my whole life changed. I did NOT know it then, but I DO know it now. That moment in time was THE defining moment of my life. I was so upset by the loss that within only a few hours, maybe even minutes, after the Challenger exploded that I called my Superintendent of Marshall County KY Schools, Reed Conder, and extended my family leave so that I could share with teachers and students about NASA and extend my time to be spent with my new baby boy Seth Michael, then only 4 months old. (Yes, I found out I was pregnant for the first time at the very same time I was involved in the running for the Teacher in Space seat! I found out within a week of being named Kentucky’s Teacher in Space that I was expecting my first child! That is ANOTHER LONG story for a different day, maybe I should write a book as many people have told me over and over.) So, on January 28 1986, Christa was gone, I was still here on this earth, I had a new baby, and I wanted to do my best to Keep the Dreams Alive. The dreams for helping education, teachers, and students who could all benefit and the dreams I myself had been dreaming for well over a year could not blow up so easily. I was resolved from that day forward to make a difference, to work hard and to make Christa proud. Twenty-five years later I am proud of the dreams accomplished.

On January 28, 1986, NASA indeed had taken a chance, that chance caused the devastating explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and seven astronauts including Christa McAuliffe, NASA’s First Teacher in Space, lost their lives at 73 seconds after lift-off. The tragedy was due to the extremely cold temperatures, in the twenties, in Florida. The cold caused ice on the shuttle and the O-rings connecting sections of the SRBs (Solid Rocket Boosters) to shrink. When the O-rings shrunk, flame that should have been ONLY inside the SRBs crept through the openings of in the O-ring seals and allowed the flames to escape causing the remaining fuel inside the external tank to explode. That explosion is what everyone saw who watching television at the time of the Shuttle launch. That image is what we all remember when we think of the Challenger tragedy. That explosion changed my life and the lives of many others forever.

How horrifying those memories are still. How ironically true my fleeting thoughts of NASA taking a chance outside the weather guidelines actually became. NASA learned lots of lessons from the mistakes made concerning the Challenger launch of STS-51L. Subsequently NASA made many changes to their launch guidelines and implemented stricter regulations regarding quality control and safety.

After finishing the leave-of-absence of 1986, I decided to extend the leave for another year so that I took a total of two years of unpaid leave of absence to do things that Christa could no longer do.  It was a total of 2 ½ years before NASA would fly again after the loss of the Challenger.

I lived, breathed and supported NASA every single moment of those 2½ years and honored Christa and the Challenger Crew by teaching students and teachers statewide across Kentucky and nationwide when invited. I focused on teaching everyone that ‘we learn more from our failures than our successes.’ I taught in memory of Christa and the crew and shared a poem written in their honor by a Kentucky student at each and every presentation.

I knew NASA had to continue and that the agency would become stronger in the process of recovering from this tragedy. I was a dedicated NASA Space Ambassador, a title they bestowed to all of the Teachers in Space, and worked endlessly to do that which Christa could not during years on road, the ‘Return to Space’. I celebrated live and in-person again at the VIP Viewing Site at Kennedy Space Center when shuttle missions resumed on September 28, 1988, with the flight of the shuttle Discovery. I was then and am now thankful that launch was successful. I have witnesses many launches in these 25 years and never once did I breath easily during the mid-launch sequence when the Solid Rocket Boosters were active. Once the SRBs began their return to earth, I breathed easier and celebrated another launch into space. Having the launch of the Challenger as my FIRST time to witness a launch, affected every subsequent launch viewing significantly.

I am always unsure of my feelings on this January 28, 1986 anniversary and sort of ‘reset’ myself for the next challenge, the next step. Changes at NASA, my retirement, the life-changing birth of my micro-preemie grandson Colton (he is my only blood grandchild), and now his beginning school all total a serious “reset” at this 25 year mark. Right now I am not sure where I am going. I am starting again locally in Frankfort, Kentucky to become an active part of the community where I have lived since 1989 but constantly flew away from to work for NASA those many years.

I am participating in Leadership Frankfort sponsored by the Frankfort Chamber of Commerce as Photographer and Owner of my own business Memories Photography Frankfort. I have just agreed to work with Lighten Up Frankfort to lighten Frankfort’s carbon footprint significantly by June of this year. Lighten Up Frankfort has already led citizens to lower Frankfort’s carbon footprint by 368 tons.  This year the Frankfort Climate Action Network and Appalachia – Science in the Public Interest, are expanding the “Lighten Up, Frankfort!” initiative to unite individuals, places of worship, businesses, schools, and civic organizations, to reduce our carbon footprint by 1,000 tons by the end of June. (If you have faithfully read this far, live in Frankfort and would like to join my team for Lighten Up Frankfort, please email me at spaceysusyq@yahoo.com. We have to start meeting right away, beginning in March, as soon as I return from FL where I am helping my mom with my step-dad who has Alzheimers. Please join me I need team members and this is my first public request!)

Pray for me that I find my way for next steps in this journey we call life. Maybe I have completed my mission doing education for Christa but I am not sure. I feel certain that continuing to offer my state of Kentucky and community of Frankfort my services and abilities is definitely in God’s plan; I am just not certain how that will play out. Thank you for being here with me now! I sincerely appreciate it! May we all continue to remember, honor and live life, learning as the Challenger crew would want us to do.

PICTURE GALLERY of Sue Darnelll Ellis now and through the past 25 years


2007 – Sue Darnell Ellis at the time of her NASA Retirement


2005 – Sue in her Frankfort office, virtual to the world, Picture taken for NASA and Oklahoma State University NASA Contractor

for the Aerospace Education Services Program, Sue’s employers 1993 – 2007


2006 – Sue with Christa’s Mother Grace Corrigan at the 20th Anniversary in Framingham Massachusetts at the LIbrary Honoring  Christa and her life.


1985 – Sue Ellen Darnell, NASA’s Kentucky Teacher in Space Official Photograph


Teacher in Space Working Group – The Challenger Group during our honorary week and week of competition in Washington DC of June 1985: Can you find Christa McAuliffe and me? I am in the first row seated on the floor in the wearing the blue dress. Christa is right behind and one to the right of me, seated in the chairs on the second row in the plaid dress.

1987 – Sue Darnell, KY, and Barbara Morgan, ID, Christa’s Backup and subsequently the First Educator Astronaut in 2007


2005 – Sue Darnell Ellis and Barbara Morgan at the NSTA Annual Convention and gathering of the Teacher in Space Ambassadors


2007 – Sue Darnell Ellis with the THREE EDUCATOR ASTRONAUTS Joe Acaba, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Ricky Arnold at the National Science Teachers Association meeting.


1985, June – Sue Darnell in the White House during the Presidential Visit during the NASA Teacher In Space Training Conference in Washington, DC


1985, October – Sue Darnell on the sidewalk of her home on MInter Road, Route 1, Symsonia, KY in  western Marshall County about a week before the birth of her son Seth MIchael. She was still teaching and taught until the day of his birth that school year.


2008 – Sue Darnell Ellis and her son, Seth Michael Darnell Jr on his wedding day in November. Seth was known as the “Space Baby” and is now 25 years old simultaneously with the 25th Anniversary of the Challenger Tragedy and the Teacher in Space program.


2008 – Sue in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the University of Kentucky holding for the first time her first and only blood grandchild, Seth Michael’s son, Colton Darnell. Colton was born very premature and was classified as a micro-preemie. He weighed 1 pound and 4 ounces when born at 23 weeks 6 days gestation. Colton has beaten the odds many times and his is a miracle survivor.


2008 – Sue with her family as they prepare to take Colton home after 172 days in the UK Hospital NICU. PIctured here are Sue mother, Wilma Cassibry, holding Colton, next to Sue. In the back are Tom Cassibry, Sue’s husband since 1995, Dennis Ellis, and then her only birth son and Colton’s father, Seth Michael Darnell.


2010, N0vember 25 – Sue and Colton celebrating his 3rd Birthday


2010, Christmas – Sue with her precious grandchildren (via hubby Dennis). The grandchildren call her Gigi. With Sue are Madison, Jaden, Keenan, Kaylee and Olivia.





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