NWU Professor & Teach In Space Finalist Reflects on Space Shuttle Disaster

Friday, January 28 marks a somber day in American history: the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

Those who witnessed the disaster — whether in person or through news coverage — will likely never forget that fateful day.

For one Nebraska Wesleyan University professor, memories of that day are even more poignant. Jim Schaffer, professor of journalism, could have been among the seven killed in the disaster.

“You just didn’t even know what to think,” Schaffer said of the shuttle that exploded just 73 seconds after the launch. “In an instant, it was gone.”

The space shuttle mission marked the first time a civilian went to space as part of President Ronald Reagan’s “Teach From Space” initiative aimed at renewing public interest in the space program.

Schaffer grew up watching Flash Gordon and dreaming of explorations and adventures. He — like most kids at the time — wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. Eventually his interests led him to a career in teaching.

“Teaching is an adventure,” he said. “You’re always learning new things.”

So when he heard about the Teach From Space Program, Schaffer quickly began the application process, which included several lengthy essay questions. He impressed judges with his ideas on how he would teach from space, demonstrating how he would also serve as an embedded journalist while aboard the shuttle.

Schaffer was one of 100 finalists among the nearly 14,000 applicants. NASA flew the finalists to Washington, D.C. where they consumed themselves with information on space travel. Finalists visited with astronauts who walked on the moon, and met President Reagan.

“NASA wanted us to be space ambassadors and go out and visit with groups in our communities to help build more awareness of the space program,” he said.

While in Washington, D.C. the finalists went before a final panel of judges who would help select the teacher who would participate.

“I just kept thinking, how cool is it to be a teacher and have the chance to fly in space,” said Schaffer. “The longer the selection process went on, the more I would fantasize about what it might be like.”

NASA selected New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, who Schaffer got to know during the selection process.

“She still embraced her inner-child and I think that’s why the judges picked her,” he said. “She got caught up in the adventure and she would have easily shared that enthusiasm with students.”

Over the years, Schaffer has shared with his students his experience and passion for the space program. Space shuttle photos and books on space travel still decorate his office. Two years ago he taught a Liberal Arts Seminar for first-year students about the space race, focusing on our country’s race to be the first on the moon.

“Times have changed and so have students,” said Schaffer, noting that his students today weren’t even born when the Challenger exploded. “Space travel is no longer as big as it once was.”

Schaffer said the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle disaster is even more bittersweet with the retirement of the shuttle program scheduled for later this spring.

“I understand there are other priorities,” he said. “It is my hope that if our energies aren’t put on the space program that they go to an area that is equally as innovative.”


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Friday, January 28 marks the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
Professor Jim Schaffer was in the running to be the first teacher in space.
Schaffer said if the Teach In Space Program was active today, he would still go despite the risk.