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“We remember her bravery” – Granite Staters pay tribute to McAuliffe on 35th anniversary of Challenger disaster

At 11:38 a.m. Thursday, Daniel Shea stood by the Concord grave of Christa McAuliffe to pay his respects to the inspiring woman he met decades ago.

At exactly that moment 35 years earlier, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off into the atmosphere. Seconds later, a tragic explosion killed the entire crew.

Shea had met McAuliffe weeks earlier during the second of two downtown parades the city of Concord held the for the charismatic school teacher-turned astronaut. It was New Years Eve and Shea, a musician, was playing in one of the restaurants off Main Street.

"She went around with her family to each and all the restaurant that sponsored the parade to thank the owners," Shea said. "She came in and I guess she liked what she heard. She stayed long enough to listen to me sing and she asked me for a request."

McAuliffe asked him to play the song "Leaving on a jet plane," written by John Denver. She got a little teary as she listened to the words of the song, Shea said. When he was done playing. McAuliffe walked over and thanked Shea for the song.

"Godspeed," Shea replied.

McAuliffe's grave at Blossom Hill cemetery was adorned with flowers and gifts left by people here in Concord and others from further away like Shea, who lives in Manchester.

On the 35th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, New Hampshire residents and political leaders paid tribute.

"We lost Christa 35 years ago, but her legacy lives on today in the students and teachers she inspired to follow in her footsteps, especially young women, to become leaders in science, mathematics and innovation," Shaheen said in a statement Thursday morning. 

On Thursday starting at noon, the U.S. Mint began accepting pre-orders of a new silver dollar commemorating McAuliffe. 

Up to 350,000 legal tender silver dollars will be manufactured at the U.S. Mint facilities in Philadelphia and will be distributed later this year. The coins sell for $74 and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to FIRST Robotics, which  offers opportunities for students to become leaders in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

McAuliffe, a social studies teacher at Concord High School, was part of the seven-member crew that boarded the Challenger space shuttle in January 1986. The recipient of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's "Teacher in Space" program, McAuliffe was selected to join the crew and conduct science experiments, which she would broadcast into classrooms across the globe.

Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, as school children across the country looked on via a live feed, the shuttle’s rocket booster suffered a leak brought on by cold conditions. The breach caused the explosion of the shuttle, off the coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, Florida. McAuliffe and all other crew members died in the incident. 

The Challenger crew included McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Mike Smith, and Ellison Onizuka.

Since then, Concord has memorialized McAuliffe with an elementary school that bears her name. The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, Concord’s planetarium and science museum, features her portrait near the entrance and her enduring motto: "I touch the future. I teach."

McAuliffe was honored with the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004. In 2019, Shaheen sponsored the legislation to create the commemorative coin to remember McAuliffe. 

In her statement Thursday, Shaheen said McAuliffe’s impact has been felt in the students that have come after her.

"Her story and impact on all Americans endures more than three decades since her passing, and I have no doubt that in New Hampshire and across the country, generations of students will know who Christa McAuliffe was and what she stood for," Shaheen said. "Her story and impact on all Americans endures more than three decades since her passing, and I have no doubt that in New Hampshire and across the country, generations of students will know who Christa McAuliffe was and what she stood for."

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas worked to secure the Christa McAuliffe Commemorative Coin Act that was signed into law by then-President Trump in 2019.

"Christa’s passion for teaching and her ability to inspire a love of learning in the next generation endures," Hassan said in a statement Thursday. "Her impressive legacy is taught in classrooms throughout New Hampshire and the country, and I am glad to be a part of efforts to honor her life further through this commemorative coin."

Pappas said McAuliffe was an inspiration to people across the country. 

"On the anniversary of this tragic day, I join all Granite Staters remembering the life and legacy of Christa McAuliffe and sharing my best wishes with her family, friends, former students, and colleagues," Pappas said. "While it has been more than three decades since her passing, her inspiration and her legacy endures, and future generations of students will look up to her as a creator, a leader, and a dreamer."

In an op-ed published in the Monitor, Kuster called McAuliffe "a beloved teacher who had dedicated her life to inspiring her students and helping young people discover the wonders of the universe."

Kuster echoed those words Thursday.

"Christa was an exceptional person who reached for the stars and inspired her students to do the same," Kuster said. "I was honored to help efforts in the House of Representatives to create a commemorative coin to keep Christa’s pioneering spirit alive as she continues to spark a passion for science and exploration among younger generations."