FOR BACKUP CREW ON FATEFUL FLIGHT, CHALLENGER LIVES ON
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Greenacres City, Florida
GREENACRES CITY, Fla. -- Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe held the headlines, and spotlight, and entered the Challenger capsule. Judith Marie Garcia, in flight gear, quietly backed away, changed her clothes, and 20 years ago, joined NASA colleagues, friends, and family in the grandstand to watch her friend die.
Dr. Judy Garcia was the backup on Jan. 28, 1986. The alternate. The one set for the second mission which never happened. The one who lived while seven friends disintegrated.
"The horror would last not a week or two but maybe two years, and perhaps always. The ten finalist teacher-astronauts were closer than friends. We had trained the same way Navy and Marine fighter pilots train at Pensacola. The loss can't be explained," Dr. Garcia told a small group of community leaders Jan. 12 at the Greenacres Kiwanis Club.
Now the director of Educational Television for the Palm Beach County School District, Dr. Garcia still speaks to students about setting their goals, facing disappointment, and maintaining self-confidence, no matter what.
At age 65 she emits a youthful, almost Amelia Earhart beauty, toughness, determination, and just a few leathery wrinkles around her stunning eyes. The teacher and pilot speaks from the heart, without notes. Close your eyes, just for a second, and remember 20 years ago, when Christa and her crew members died.
Astronaut/Mission Commander Dick Scobee, a team leader and pilot instructor for the final group of 10 teacher-astronauts, was conducting a role-playing session before a big press conference. When the question of the dangers of space travel came up, a public relations officer tried to be helpful and reminded Scobee, "Heck, statistically it's more dangerous to get on the road and drive the Baltimore-Washington Expressway, than ride the Challenger."
Garcia's eyes rolled back to another time and place. For a few moments one thought she might be speaking to a force far above and beyond the back of the room:
"I don't think anyone even thought Scobee had a temper. He had never even raised his voice. He stopped the presentation, and pointed his finger squarely at the NASA public information guy, and shouted, 'Don't you dare! Don't you dare say that, and don't you dare think it! If you think this, you don't belong here or affiliated with this program. Let's get this straight. Space flight is experimental. Space travel is experimental. Someday, maybe sooner, maybe later, people will die, and it will be a big disaster for the nation and this program. Don't you ever lead people to think that it's something safe or routine!'"
Besides Commander Scobee and McAuliffe, the Challenger crew members who died were pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik, and payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis. McAuliffe was also listed as a payload specialist, as was her backup that day, Judy Garcia.
A former Fairfax, Va., high school teacher of French, Spanish, and history, Garcia said that every teacher-astronaut, and every member of their family had to be briefed and saturated in the reality of death. "You did not talk about it every day, but you lived with it every day. When I speak to youngsters I tell them that if there is something, maybe one thing, that you think is worth dying for, then you've come to grips with it, and you are not deterred by the fear of death."
While teaching in Virginia, Garcia got the flying bug, and started taking pilot's lessons. "About that time President Reagan gave a big speech about the need to tie the theoretical science of the space program with classroom lessons. Teachers would be accepted as future astronauts."
NASA was taken by surprise. They had no such program, or so they said. She wrote to the White House and in 1984 "someone sent me an application to apply for another application."
To students who listen to Dr. Garcia (her Ph.D. in education is from the University of Oklahoma), there can be no self-pity when odds seem stacked against you, Listen up, kids.
"About 47,000 people applied. I received a letter that ten thousand teachers had the initial legitimate qualifications to be evaluated. From there they selected a few hundred. More interviews, tests, evaluations, and then after months of training I was called to the White House as one of the ten finalists.
"I never got too nervous at the interviews because this was a first-ever program and none of us knew what NASA was looking for. There were six men and four women. A wide background of teaching different subjects, but it seemed as if the evaluators liked the idea that I was fluent in five languages and could provide some good communication skills with the public and the media."
Shortly before President Ronald Reagan announced that New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe would be the first to fly, Judy Garcia was called aside by a NASA official and told, "It was very, very close. Christa will get the call, but you were number two. You will train with the team. You are the alternate. And after this flight you will definitely be flying the next one."
"Sure, I was disappointed, and on pure, hard, physical fitness and athleticism I perhaps should have been surprised that I made runner-up, but when I thought of the 47,000 who started, well, my family was proud and I was proud."
The rest is history. The teacher-in-space program was placed on hold, and Garcia was kept at NASA for several years as consultant and speaker on special subjects. She also had more than her share of appearances as a Congressional witness.
"One Congressman frosted me. He wondered out loud if future astronauts should only be single, or men, or single men. How terrible it would be to once again lose a mom with kids. My response was, 'I thought we've moved beyond the time when somehow it's okay for kids to lose their dad in an accident, and somehow that's less traumatic than losing your mom. Every astronaut has discussed this with their families, and discrimination because of some paternalism is not the answer!'"
Garcia, who returned to school as a teacher and administrator, stays in close touch with the other NASA teachers, and has visited McAuliffe's husband and kids several times. In a few days, there will be a 20th anniversary gathering in New Hampshire. She's sad that her school-board duties - rebuilding giant satellite dishes and transponders torn down by Hurricane Wilma - will keep her from the event.
"I've talked to them on the phone. I'm with them. I'm always with them," she said.
AR Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum was formerly with UPI.