Many teachers will say that September 12, 2001 was a hard day to teach: No one knew what was going on, some parents kept kids at home, and the students that did come to school didn’t understand. None of us did. For me, this was actually my second hardest day of teaching.
My most difficult day was February 3, 2003, the Monday after the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry after a two-week long mission. Before coming to the National Air and Space Museum to host STEM in 30, I was an elementary and middle school teacher for sixteen years in Missouri public schools. The Columbia disaster was during my fifth year of teaching.
One of the language arts concepts I taught was letter writing, and I also covered space in my science curriculum. For many years I combined the two and had students write letters to astronauts. A month before Columbia’s launch, I taught my fifth grade students about the symbolism of mission patches, showing them how the stars on the patch typically represent the children of the crew. After learning about mission patches I gave each student a class list of their “crewmates.” They were tasked with creating a mission patch that represented our class and our “mission.”
After completing the patches, a list of current astronauts was passed around and the kids chose one at random to write to. Often they chose an astronaut because of an interesting sounding name, or if the student had the same first or last name. The girls often chose female astronauts. Then, the kids began researching their astronauts and writing letters. Their goal in the letter was to ask a couple of questions and to trade their class-designed mission patch for one from an astronaut.
The responses were incredible! Students received signed pictures, handwritten letters, and mission patch stickers, or occasionally an embroidered mission patch. Every letter returned was cause for a class celebration. As the students came to the front of the room and opened their letters- often a large manila envelope with the NASA logo on the front-you could hear a pin drop. Watching the kids walk back to their desks with their responses, no matter what it was, was amazing. Kids clapped and the letter’s recipient walked back to his or her desk like a conquering hero.
In 2003, we had mailed our letters just before the holiday break in December. All through January responses came trickling in.
On Saturday, February 1, I woke up and turned on the television just as reports of a problem were coming in. I was glued to the TV, hoping for the best, but, as a life-long space buff, understanding what the outcome would be.
Later, I pulled out my class list and I called every one of my students. There were a lot of tears that afternoon. While many of the students were upset about the accident themselves, a number of my students were upset because they knew how sad I would be. The empathy shown by those fifth grade students to the astronauts, their families, and to me was humbling.
Monday came around and in class we talked a lot about the flight and the astronauts. We talked about the parts of the mission they completed and what we knew about what had happened. Four of my students had written to astronauts on STS-107. We knew we would never get a response. There were more tears that day, but we became closer as a class.
About a week after the accident we received a response from an astronaut--not one of the crew of Columbia, but another who had not yet flown into space. The name is lost to me, but I’ll never forget the contents of that letter. The letter was dated a few days before the disaster. The typed note thanked the student for the nice letter and went on to explain that the astronaut had not flown yet. It went on to say, “Right now we have a mission that is up doing some amazing science. Since I don’t have a mission patch yet, I’ve enclosed one of theirs.” I don’t think there was a dry eye in the classroom that day as we looked at the Columbia mission patch.
Now that I work at the Museum, I get constant reminders of how difficult space travel is. I was able to share a moment with my students 15 years ago and I hope they still remember that even though space travel is hard and dangerous, it is worth it. Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Columbia disaster. Every year on this date I think about the crew of the Columbia, my students, and that letter.