Epilogue: Lincoln teacher could've been on Challenger

2011-01-24T09:30:00Z 2011-01-27T16:51:23Z Epilogue: Lincoln teacher could've been on ChallengerBy JORDAN PASCALE / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
January 24, 2011 9:30 am  • 

Every generation has a defining event, one they'll remember for the rest of their lives: Pearl Harbor, JFK's assassination, 9/11.

Friday marks the 25th anniversary of one of those eternal moments: the space shuttle Challenger explosion.

For one Lincolnite, that day remains especially vivid. It could've been him on that shuttle.

It was a moment of beauty and excitement followed by confusion and devastation.

Schoolchildren across the nation tuned in to watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. The first-ever civilian -- a social studies teacher from New Hampshire -- was going to teach kids from outer space.

The event drew more than a thousand media members to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to cover the event. Jim Schaffer was supposed to be there to witness the event, too, but delays brought him back to Lincoln.

The Lincoln East journalism teacher had the pre-launch CNN broadcast on in the background during his morning classes. The sound was turned low until the launch counter reached 10 seconds.

"The whole room was excited and cheering -- and then 'poof,'" Schaffer recalled Friday. "I didn't understand what it meant, what happened."

About 73 seconds into the launch, something went wrong -- investigators later determined a seal connecting a rocket booster failed, causing a gas leak.

Smoke, then flames, engulfed the Challenger. Pieces of the rocket boosters broke off -- smoke formed a "Y" in the morning sky over the Atlantic Ocean.

"Obviously a major malfunction," the voice of flight control in Houston said that morning.

"It dawns on you that the shuttle is gone and the astronauts are lost -- it was a pretty devastating thing," Schaffer said.

The explosion killed six astronauts and the first teacher in space, 37-year-old Christa McAuliffe.

But it could've been him.

Schaffer, then 35 years old, was in the running to be the first teacher in space. He applied along with more than 14,000 other teachers.

President Ronald Reagan announced the "Teach from Space" initiative to renew interest in the space program. Enthusiasm hit a fever pitch during the 1969 moon landing, but had declined since then.

The Lincolnite made the top 100 and earned a trip to Washington along with Omaha Northwest teacher Roger Rea, who also represented Nebraska.

They both interviewed, but ultimately McAuliffe was chosen for her charisma and her curiosity about the human aspects of space flight.

It was supposed to be the ultimate field trip, Schaffer said.

He often thinks about what it would be like if he had been on that shuttle.

"I've thought about that -- I've thought about what would life be like for my wife and kids and about my students," Schaffer said in 1988. "Maybe it's good to think about our mortality -- it makes every day more precious."

* * *

Twenty-five years after a "could've been" moment, Schaffer is still living every day like it's precious.

Schaffer continued to inspire young minds as a sponsor for Lincoln East's publications until 1990 when he started teaching journalism and English at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

But few -- if any -- of his students were even alive when the explosion happened and he rarely gets asked about the contest to be the teacher in space.

"There's just not that interest in the space program like there used to be," Schaffer said.

But he remains very interested in NASA and the great beyond: his office in Old Main contains books about space shuttles and he can talk at length about NASA's current missions.

In the late '80s, he gave more than 400 talks at schools, Elks Lodges and church groups promoting the space program and talking about his experiences in the contest.

He's been honored with multiple teaching awards from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Teachers College Alumni Association, Lincoln Public Schools and was nominated for Nebraska teacher of the year in the '80s.

In the immediate aftermath of the Challenger explosion, a local doctor, Dr. Gregg Wright, established a teaching award named after McAuliffe for a Nebraska teacher who exhibits courage and excellence in education.

Schaffer still has a seat on that committee.

* * *

Schaffer grew up in an era when Flash Gordon would travel to far-off lands on TV. As a kid, he imagined his pencil was Gordon's rocket and would play for hours. The astronaut was his hero.

He wanted adventure in his life, and space travel was the greatest adventure of all, Schaffer says.

That's why he applied.

Teachers were required to have three lessons planned and other activities. As a journalism teacher, Schaffer planned to keep a detailed journal of the shuttle flight.

The competition was a big deal -- the Lincoln papers wrote more than 15 stories about it.

During a neighborhood block party, Schaffer's neighbors gave him his own mock shuttle to ride around. They gave him gag gifts -- barf bags -- and played the "Star Wars" theme as kids pulled him along the sidewalks.

He went to interviews in D.C. and came back with more than 70 pounds of pamphlets, photographs, videotapes and slide shows on the shuttle.

Asked if he still would've taken the trip despite the risk, he hesitated, then said yes.

"It's an eerie feeling," Schaffer said. "People ask me a lot if I'm glad I wasn't on that mission and, yeah, I'm glad I wasn't, but if I would've been in Christa McAuliffe's position, I would've said yes and I would've wanted to do it again probably."

* * *

Like a lot of people, Schaffer made a bucket list as a kid.

"I thought if I could live to the year 2000 I would do it (make it into space)," Schaffer said in a June 9, 1985, Lincoln Journal article.

Schaffer is 11 years past his deadline and still hasn't crossed "space travel" off his list.

"Ya know, you can buy a ticket to space now -- I don't think I would have the money," Schaffer said laughing.

But he said he doesn't think he would go now. He said he feels he's already benefited from the space program.

"There's a famous picture of the Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts. You can see the whole Earth and the landscape, but no political boundaries or obvious divisions. It's the one place in all the dark of space where we can live.

"The lesson of the space program is not so much about travel in space, but that this is our home and we have to take care of it and learn to get along."

Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120 or jpascale@journalstar.com.

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