In 1990 on the day of the first successful space shuttle launch some four years after the Challenger disaster in 1986, I was speaking on the telephone with Jim Michener. He was very nervous about the planned launch for that day and I asked about his anxiety. Jim told me that he felt responsible for the death of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher astronaut who was killed in the 1986 explosion. That assertion shocked me and I asked why he felt such personal responsibility.
Jim reminded me that along with Walter Cronkite he had served in the 1970s on the NASA Citizen’s Advisory Board which had been established to advise the space agency on future plans. The advisory board made several recommendations including the suggestion that NASA select a teacher as a future astronaut in order to better connect the program with children all across America. As a result of their recommendation Christa was selected and trained to become the first teacher in space. We all know the tragic consequences of that decision.
We all tend to forget how important Jim was to the character and life of America in the 1960s and 1970s, but our museum’s namesake was a citizen of the world who actively participated in our county for many years. So perhaps as we remember the tragedy of the shuttle explosion of 25 years ago, we should also remember the part that Jim Michener played in establishing the idea which unfortunately ended with that explosion.