There, but for the grace of God

Just as we can on the day JFK was shot, most of us who are getting long of tooth recall where we were on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986.

On that horrific day at 11:38 a.m. Eastern Standard Time the space shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members.

At the time, I was working in the Anchorage Times newsroom. I remember a TV monitor replaying over and over the sad scene of the spacecraft disintegrating just off the coast of central Florida.

Like everyone across the nation, we were stunned by the deaths of seven of our nation's best and brightest. In addition to the six NASA astronauts, the crew included Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project.

It's hard to forget her bright smile of enthusiasm.

"I was in my classroom that morning," recalls retired educator Steve Boyarsky, 60, of what was then Medford Senior High School. "The school secretary, who was kind of a jokester, came in and told us what happened. I could tell by her face that she wasn't joking. Then we turned on the TV and saw what happened.

"I remember the principal coming in and asking if I wanted to go home," adds the Medford resident.

After all, Steve could have easily been on that flight.

He was one of two Oregon teachers selected by NASA as finalists in the program. The other was Mike Fitzgibbons of Forest Grove High School.

Steve did not want to go home. He preferred to continue working that morning 25 years ago to help keep his mind off the terrible tragedy.

He had met McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, N.H., when all the finalists — two from each state — gathered in Washington, D.C. The competition for the slot aboard the Challenger had been stiff, drawing 11,400 educators from across the nation.

What's more, he and his wife, Mary, had returned to Medford the night before the shuttle accident from Florida, where they had been invited by NASA to see the Challenger launch.

But the launch had been postponed for several days. And domestic duties coupled with work responsibilities prompted the Boyarskys to return to Medford.

After all, their children were staying with friends back in Medford.

Teachers both, the couple were also calling in lesson plans for their substitute teachers.

Steve taught science in Medford high schools for nearly two decades and retired as head of Southern Oregon Education Service District. Mary, who continues to teach at South Medford High School, will retire at the end of this school year.

"I didn't think they were going to lift off that morning," Steve recalls. "We had been there for several days waiting to see the lift-off. But it kept being delayed."

When he thinks about the shuttle accident now, he doesn't dwell on the fact he would have been on Challenger's final flight had he been chosen.

"I think about my experience, the wonderful people I met along the way," he says.

Although he did not know McAuliffe well, he and his wife came to know her backup, teacher Barbara Morgan of Idaho. Morgan became the first educator astronaut to leave the bounds of earth when she flew in the shuttle Endeavour in August 2007.

At the Boyarskys' behest, Morgan also came to Medford to speak to high-school classes about science and space exploration.

A native of California's central valley, Steve says he had followed the space program in his younger years.

"It was something that intrigued me," he says. "The chance to go into space for two weeks seemed like a lot of fun. I thought that would be very cool."

If selected, he had planned to test how the lack of gravity would impact the flying ability of young birds inside a contained area within the shuttle.

"One of the reasons for the teacher-in-space flight was to get NASA and science education back on the front page," he says.

"They wanted to excite and enthuse young people in our country about science in space, and inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers," he adds, then concludes sadly, "I'm not sure that goal has been achieved."

But he knows that Christa McAuliffe's bright smile continues to light the way.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at

Share This Story