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Then & Now: Grace Corrigan

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Grace Corrigan speaks to CNN in 2003.

SPECIAL REPORT

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
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Disasters (General)

(CNN) -- In 1986, Grace Corrigan watched along with the rest of the stricken nation as the space shuttle Challenger, carrying her daughter, Christa McAuliffe, and six other crew members, exploded in the blue skies over Cape Canaveral, Florida. Today, Corrigan keeps her daughter's dream of being the first teacher in space alive through her work at the McAuliffe Center.

Today, there are 40 schools around the world named after the teacher from Boston, Massachusetts. But in July 1985, Christa McAuliffe, 37, was a little-known teacher in Concord, New Hampshire, who dreamed of leading a class from space.

When NASA selected McAuliffe in 1985 for its Teacher in Space Program, the bright-eyed social studies teacher and mother of two had won the coveted seat over more than 11,500 other candidates.

"I don't think any teacher is as ready as I am," McAuliffe said as she was preparing for her mission.

On January 28, 1986, the morning of the launch, it was bitterly cold at the Kennedy Space Center, and the launch had been repeatedly delayed due to weather problems.

Finally, NASA gave Challenger the green light, but only 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle exploded. An entire nation watched in horror and disbelief.

The seven crewmembers were lost including Grace Corrigan's daughter.

"I don't think it was that we didn't understand something very horrible had happened," Corrigan told CNN of the moments after the disaster. "I think it was the fact that we didn't want to (believe it)."

The loss was felt everywhere. For weeks before the Challenger launch, NASA had publicized the flight of the first civilian, the first teacher, in space.

"I remember very vividly those days leading up to the launch. The weekend before the launch there were many schoolchildren who were there," CNN reporter Mike Zarrella recalls of his coverage of the Challenger disaster. "They were so proud that a teacher was going into space ... there was so much excitement, so much buildup ... but it ended in such a terrible, terrible tragedy," he said.

Following the disaster, McAuliffe's parents sought to keep her memory alive. They worked with Framingham State College, Christa's alma mater, to establish The McAuliffe Center.

The Center strives to honor Christa's commitment to education by providing cutting-edge science and math classes to schoolchildren. For instance, school children can step into a full-size replica of Houston's Mission Control to solve challenges presented in a simulated space flight.

The Center also offers workshops for teachers, and it awards scholarships and fellowships to deserving students in the would-be astronauts name.

Today, McAuliffe's two children are grown. Her son Scott was recently married and just finished graduate studies in Marine Biology. Her daughter Caroline became a teacher.

McAuliffe's mother, Grace, lost her husband in 1990, but she continues to work closely with the McAuliffe Center in honor of her daughter.

"The reason I still do it is because I feel Christa is saying, 'hey, come on, Mom, I'm not there to do it ... you know, do it for me.' I find it's been very rewarding. And I'm very proud of her," Corrigan said.

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