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Challenger still resonates

For 25 years, outpouring over McAuliffe’s death

Ethan Switzer, 12, wrote to the McAuliffe Space Center in Framingham. Ethan Switzer, 12, wrote to the McAuliffe Space Center in Framingham. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / January 28, 2011

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The 10-year-old girl had sat in horrified silence in a Duxbury classroom 25 years ago today, staring at the images on the television — of the space shuttle carrying beloved Concord, N.H., teacher Christa McAuliffe as it disintegrated into the clouds.

She recalled feeling haunted for seven months until one warm August afternoon she sat down with a sheet of lined notebook paper and wrote to McAuliffe’s parents, Edward and Grace Corrigan.

“I am 11 years old and going into the sixth grade,’’ wrote Andrea Hamel, now a 35-year-old Dover teacher. “I am writing to you because I want to tell you how sorry I am about the shuttle disaster. I have never met your daughter Christa, but to this day I still think about her.’’

As the nation marks the 25th anniversary of the doomed Challenger shuttle mission, the tens of thousands of letters like Hamel’s are reminders of the sorrow that remained after the disaster and the powerful symbol of hope and aspiration that McAuliffe has become.

Mail has gone to her mother in Framingham, to her widower and children in New Hampshire, to NASA, and to the Framingham State University science center in McAuliffe’s name.

Letters, poetry, postcards, and words of sympathy from teachers, school children, nuns, and prison inmates capture the sentiment of those who cannot forget.

“A whole package came yesterday in the mail from St. Benedict school in Holmdel, New Jersey,’’ Grace Corrigan said in a phone interview yesterday. “She’s very alive in all of the kids, and that was the message she was trying to get out. Obviously, she achieved that because I see it every time I get the mail.’’

The letters — composed on typewriters, in child-like scrawls, or in neat cursive on fancy stationery — are from all over the world: the Belgian town of Zele, the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopis, and the great metropolises of Paris, London, Athens, and Hong Kong. Many more come from around the United States.

“They all tell me about the explosion, how hurt they all felt, and how sorry they are, and the impact it made on their lives,’’ she said.

Heather Noyse, as an 18-year-old student at MIT, was moved after reading Grace Corrigan’s book, “A Journal for Christa.’’

“I don’t know what to say about your daughter Christa, except to say that she inspired me,’’ Noyse wrote on Dec. 12, 1993. “I have always wanted to be an astronaut, and people are always telling me it is impossible, but it wasn’t for her, and it won’t be for me either.’’

Now Heather McCrary and living in Colorado, she is working in the space sciences.

After a trip last year to the Challenger Learning Center, Ethan Switzer, now a seventh-grader at Mountview Middle School, wrote as part of a class assignment of McAuliffe’s inspiration.

“My parents tell me that they were about my age when the Challenger exploded,’’ wrote Switzer, 12. “The members of the Challenger, especially Christa, have inspired me to set and achieve more goals.’

Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a Framingham native who taught high school in Concord, N.H., was picked from more than 11,000 applicants to join six other astronauts on Challenger as the first teacher in space. She became a local hero and NASA’s face for reinvigorating public interest in its lagging space program. Her story resonated with teachers, students, and working mothers.

On Jan. 28, 1986 at the Kennedy Space Center, McAuliffe, 37, and the rest of the smiling crew members walked past the television cameras and boarded Challenger about 11:40 a.m.

One minute and 13 seconds later, they were all dead.

The other crew members were Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Gregory B. Jarvis.

Yesterday, Governor John Lynch of New Hampshire officially recognized today as Christa McAuliffe Remembrance Day in his state. Last night, Framingham State, joined by teachers, middle school students, and McAuliffe’s mother, paid tribute to the Challenger crew. Christa McAuliffe earned her teaching degree at Framingham State.

McAuliffe’s widower, Steven, who is a federal judge in New Hampshire, said remembrances of Christa are “comforting and inspirational for our family.’’

Sitting in her Newton living room on another snowy afternoon, Hamel tried to recall the fading details of 1986 and how the letter to McAuliffe’s parents changed her life forever.

Grace Corrigan responded to the 11-year-old Hamel later that year.

“The facts that you wrote are correct,’’ the note said. “Christa did touch many lives.’’

The two forged an unlikely friendship and wrote to each other over the years. Hamel, after graduating college, became Corrigan’s personal assistant and helped organize the thousands of letters at Framingham State.

Now the two are close friends.

“She is one of the most amazing people I have ever met,’’ said Hamel. “You can see where Christa got it from. She’s one of my dearest friends.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.

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