Almost a Teacher in Space

    Retired teacher Steve Boyarsky, who applied to fly on the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger in 1986, puts on his Space Camp flight suit before speaking with North Medford High School students Wednesday. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]

    On Jan. 28, 1986, a work colleague of Steve Boyarsky's walked into his classroom at Medford Senior High School, her demeanor serious.

    She and Boyarsky often cracked jokes. But that day — when the Challenger space shuttle launched and exploded about 73 seconds later, killing the seven-person crew — was different.

    "She said, 'Steve, the shuttle just blew up,' " Boyarsky recalled Wednesday while sitting in the North Medford High School planetarium, where he had been invited to give guest lectures to students of astronomy teacher Robert Black.

    It was news she likely knew Boyarsky would want to know. He had just gotten back from Florida, where he'd traveled to watch the launch with his family. Unfortunately, he had to miss it due to several delays and made the trip back to Medford.

    Boyarsky wasn't just an interested observer. Months before, he'd been one of 114 teachers from across the country NASA considered for its Teacher In Space program.

    Teacher in Space

    Boyarsky first heard of the Teacher In Space mission in a 1984 speech by President Ronald Reagan. The mission, Reagan said, was designed to put a private citizen in space. And not just anyone: a teacher, one of "America's finest," Reagan said.

    “When that shuttle lifts off, all of America will be reminded of the crucial role teachers and education play in the life of our nation," Reagan said. "I can’t think of a better lesson for our children, and our country."

    The project was meant to generate more public interest in NASA-led programs, particularly among students, Boyarsky said.

    "(NASA's) always looking for new twists and angles on the projects they're doing to get the attention of the public," Boyarsky said. "They started this kind of 'civilian-in-space' thing, and so a teacher was going to be the first civilian in space."

    A biology teacher, Boyarsky jumped at the chance. At that point, he'd been teaching for about 10 years.

    "Haven't you always wanted to fly in space? I mean, doesn't everyone want to do that?" he said. "That's what piqued my interest in it. 'Wow, this would be a cool thing to do.' And then just all the learning that comes along with that. It would be so interesting to do."

    The process started with nearly 11,000 applicants, according to the Challenger Center website, who had to fill out an 11-page application. Within that application, they were asked to come up with a proposal for a project they could do in space.

    "I had a friend who worked at NASA, and so I started brainstorming with them," Boyarsky said. "I ended up doing this heavily scientific proposal to take hummingbirds in space."

    The reason? To check their inner ear and balance, and to see whether they could fly since there was no gravity.

    "And come to find out, that wasn't really what NASA was interested in," Boyarsky said. "They wanted the teacher to go into space and teach lessons from space back to classrooms all over the world."


    NASA whittled the initial pool of applicants down to 114 semifinalists — two teachers from each state, along with teachers from Washington, D.C., and military schools overseas. Boyarsky and Forest Grove High School science teacher Michael Fitzgibbons represented Oregon, chosen from Oregon's original group of 190. 

    "Yeah, that was pretty cool," Boyarsky said.

    A week in Washington, D.C., was next, where they attended multiple seminars and interviews. He saw the White House. President Reagan spoke to the group.

    "They called us ambassadors," he said. "They expected us to go back and share the NASA story with our local communities."

    Of the 114, NASA selected 10 finalists. Boyarsky was not among them.

    "I was bummed. I was big-time bummed," Boyarsky said.

    Christa McAuliffe of New Hampshire was eventually selected for the program with Barbara Morgan, of Idaho, as an alternate.

    Despite not being chosen, Boyarsky learned a lot from the experience.

    "You have to prepare yourself for anything that comes," he told Robert Black's classes this week. "And preparing yourself in high school means you're good at reading, writing, you're competent with math. You prepare yourself for opportunities by being ready with those skills."

    Jan. 28, 1986

    Despite not being chosen, Boyarsky and his family did get to go to Florida to watch the Challenger launch.

    "All 114 (teachers) were there," he said. "It was a big ceremonial thing. We were pumped."

    But the launch was delayed multiple times due to a variety of factors, including weather-related issues at an emergency landing site in Senegal, so Boyarsky headed home. The disaster occurred the next day.

    "It was shocking," Boyarsky said. "We all wondered what had happened. I mean, we just couldn't believe it."

    Key portions of a report on findings from a commission that investigated the explosion ran in a June 1986 New York Times report.

    "The commission concluded that the cause of the Challenger accident was the failure of the pressure seal in the aft field joint of the right solid rocket motor," the report said. "The failure was due to a faulty design unacceptably sensitive to a number of factors. These factors were the effects of temperature, physical dimensions, the character of materials, the effects of reusability, processing and the reaction of the joint to dynamic loading."

    Boyarsky knows it could have been him on the shuttle, but he didn't really get far enough in the selection process for it to have been a possibility, he said.

    "If I was one of the 10 (finalists), maybe I'd feel like that could have been me," Boyarsky said. "I did well in getting as far as I did, but I didn't feel like I was that close."

    Since then, Boyarsky has kept in touch with the teachers he met during his trip to D.C.

    For a while, the group got together frequently, traveling to space camps and other events. Two years ago, about 65 of the original group met in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center for the disaster's 30th anniversary.

    "There's a camaraderie with that kind of shared experience," he said.

    — Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or Follow him at

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