By Andrew Willoughby
On Jan. 28, 1986, Grace Corrigan and her husband, Edward McAuliffe, watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger from the grounds of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Their eldest daughter, Christa McAuliffe, was one of the seven crew members and was set to be the Hrst teacher in space.
Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the Challenger exploded as a result of a fuel leak, killing the shuttle’s entire crew.
Following the death of her daughter, Grace made it her mission to carry on her daughter’s vision – to provide easy access to education and excite young learners about STEM fields and teaching – until her death on Nov. 8 at the age of 94.
Bruce Mattison, assistant director of the McAuliffe Center, said, “Following the accident, the families of the astronauts got together and agreed that they didn’t want some stone memorial somewhere that was meant to represent their loved ones. That would be insufficient for the mission that they had.”
With that notion, they decided a learning center devoted to carrying on Christa’s mission of education would be their “living, purposeful memorial,” he added.
Since then, more than 50 Challenger Learning Centers have been established across the nation. One of those centers opened in 1994 at both Christa’s and Grace’s alma mater: Framingham State.
FSU’s McAuliffe Center offers STEM education programs for both K-12 groups and college courses, planetarium shows for all ages, and simulated space missions.
Mary Liscombe, former director of the McAuliffe Center and president of the Independent Association of Framingham State Alumni, was present in ’94 when the center opened and quickly became close friends with Grace.
“She was always stylish,” Liscombe said. “She had beautiful taste. She was very friendly, very open, and very kind. To see her with children was an amazing thing. ... Her name was Grace, and she was very gracious.”
Grace visited the center on a weekly basis up until 2008.
Evan Pagliuca, manager of education programs at the center, said, “She would spend time with the kids that were participating in the [simulated] challenger missions and let them ask her any kind of questions.”
Pagliuca said Grace was “passionate. ... She was really focused on continuing the mission for the Challenger crew. Every time I interacted with her, that was her focus – to make sure that they were remembered and that their mission was continued.”
Mattison said she would speak with politicians, asking them to help develop the center. “She was the best cheerleader we could ever have. ... Her presence and her ability to influence the people of power who were able to open doors for us was impactful.”
President Javier Cevallos said Grace “courageously stepped in and delivered the FSU commencement address in place of Christa in 1986. ... Grace lived an incredible life that was dedicated to doing good for others. I know the entire FSU community joins me in mourning her passing. At the same time, we remain grateful for our connection to both Grace and Christa, and we hold a responsibility to continue carrying their legacies forward.”
Both Liscombe and Mattison recalled Grace’s yearly Christmas gatherings. She would invite the center’s staff to her home.
Liscombe said, “She had one room in her den, and all the walls were completely covered with pictures of Christa and her journey to space. ... People’s jaws would drop at what she had saved.”
In 1999, Grace published a book titled, “A Journal for Christa.”
Mattison said, “Christa would no doubt have authored something after her experience and was robbed of the opportunity.” The book was Grace’s “attempt at assembling what Christa might have wanted as a record.
“Kids were interested in her daughter’s story,” said Mattison. “She was always happy to talk to them. They would always ask her about her daughter’s death. She never flinched at a question and would always handle it gracefully.”
Helen Heineman, FSU president emerita said after the Challenger incident, the entire college shared a “terrible depression. Grace was amazing at that time. ... I was so taken with her.”
Heineman added, “She was the driving force. She was the engine. She was modest and always focused on the mission. It was her daughter’s mission and she was going to complete it – and she did.”
A commemoration of the life of Grace Corrigan is scheduled for the 33rd anniversary of the Challenger launch, Jan. 28, 2019 at 4:30. The location has not yet been announced.