My New Blog Response to the Cincinnati Enquirer article entitled “Challenger changed teacher’s trajectory” by Bill Croyle. Published on their blog and placed here for my records basically!
When Bill Croyle called me prior to the 25th Anniversary, I was focused on helping my mom and Stepdad who has Alzheimers really. Being here in Florida in so close to Kennedy Space Center, my mind filled with memories and all of my senses began to pop filling in thoughts and feelings about these 25 years. I thank Bill for his kindness to me during the interview process. It has been a VERY reflective time for me and I began to write. Here are more thoughts and feelings than could fit into the column inches of an article. Here is what came flowing from my heart as I reflected. I share with you as you all shared in the pain of the loss of the Challenger and the Crew. NASA is YOUR Space Agency and I take that ‘public’ position seriously to this day. Together we are the UNITED States of America!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
PICTURES included in the GALLERY of Sue Darnelll Ellis, Kentucky Teacher in Space, then and now through the past 25 years:
Christa and I are both in this picture of the “Challenger” Group during the NASA Teacher in Space Conference in Washington DC in June, 1985. I am on the floor in the front row in the blue dress with white belt. Christa is seated just behind me to the right a bit, in a plaid dress.
Here I am in the White House Blue Room and was NOT barricaded by ropes. This was June 1985 during the NASA Teacher in Space Conference on the day President Reagan met with us and shared a beautiful poem entitled ‘Teacher’ with us. Oh yes, I was 5 months along with my son Seth Michael in this picture and still wearing belted dresses!
Here I am with Christa’s mom, Grace Corrigan. We were honoring Christa during the 20th Anniversary in Framingham Massachusetts where Christa attended college and they have created a library of memorabilia about Christa as the First Teacher in Space.
In this picture I am with Barbara Morgan who was Idaho Teacher in Space, Christa’s backup and eventually in 2008 the FIRST EDUCATOR ASTRONAUT. Barbara has been a wonderful and important part of the teacher in space legacy. We were in Houston Texas at Johnson Space Center at another NASA Teacher in Space Training Conference.
Here I am with Barbara Morgan again. This was in 2007 at the National Science Teachers Association and the annual gathering of the teachers from NASA’s Teacher in Space Program.
NASA’s Educator Astronauts Joe Acaba, me, Dottie Metcalf-Lindernburger and Ricky Arnold all in 2007 at the National Science Teachers meeting. What a fabulous time to be with ALL of the Educator Astronauts!
After I retired in 2007, God gave us a miracle blessing when my first & only blood grandson, Colton Lee Darnell was born very premature. Colton was born at 23 weeks 6 days gestation and weighed only 1 pound and 4 ounces! I had no idea babies of this size and this early could survive. Colton beat the odds. This picture captures my FIRST time to hold him! Behind me is Colton’s NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) room where he lived his first 172 days. Once again God directed my life as it needed to be. I was retired and since Colton’s birth I have spent as much time helping with him as I was able.
Me with my son, Seth Michael Darnell Jr., the ‘Space Baby’ at his wedding in 2008. Seth is now 25.
Here I am with Colton now. God helped him survive and thrive! He beat the odds and will be one of the first boys to survive the NICU being born at his size and weight. Colton’s life will tell us all a story about our NICU units nationwide and help us learn more about protecting unborn babies and helping premature ones. Once again I am involved deeply and with passion in a world of scientific research, discovery, and learning about the unknown. This picture was made on Colton’s 3rd Birthday in November 2010. Isn’t he beautiful? Keep Colton in your prayers always, he will learn to deal with blindness and cerebral palsy during his lifetime. I will always be here to help him and to thank God for giving us the opportunity to love him.
Surrounded by my GRANDchildren at Christmastime 2010. Madison, Jaden, Keenan, Kaylee, and Olivia. Life surrounded by children is fabulously fun and happy!