As a child of the 1980s, much of my elementary and middle school memories centered around outer space and space travel. With each space shuttle launch, I remember teachers wheeling the AV cart into the classroom, as we watched every launch and every return to earth.
And as for so many of my generation, these memories include the fateful day of January 28, 1986. I was sitting in a middle school classroom in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, as we watched the first schoolteacher begin her journey into the heavens.
The selection of Christa McAuliffe was a big deal. Educators from across the country submitted applications to be the first teacher in space. My father, a college professor at the time, had actually applied. When McAuliffe was selected, it was clear why she was the choice. And every child across the country saw in her – as she was training – the very teachers that stood in front of their classrooms each and every day and made learning come alive.
With eyes glued to that television set on the AV cart, we watched the Challenger prepare for launch. The plumes of smoke billowing under the rockets on the launchpad. The shuttle vibrating. The slow ascent. And then the tragic explosion. Our teachers struggled to explain what had happened on that fateful morning, just as they tried to understand it themselves.
The Challenger disaster became one of the defining moments of my generation’s childhood, and McAuliffe was the face of it. We could all relate to seeing that teacher, that mother, prepare to take flight and achieve the dream so many of us had to become space travelers. Then a little part of our childhood, and a part of our dreams, died with the explosion.
So why this trip down memory lane? As most have seen by now, Lego recently announced a new series of figures of the women of NASA. Legends like Sally Ride and recently discovered heroes like Katherine Johnson of Hidden Figures fame are honored, as they should be. In total, Lego recognizes five women who shaped NASA and shaped science, all honored with that famous Lego peg head. The series is expected to hit the stores at the end of the year.
But missing from this new collection is Christa McAuliffe. Missing is that classroom teacher we all had. Missing is that regular person – a non-rocket-scientist – who, for a too short a moment, reminded each and every one of us that dreams can come true. There is no McAuliffe Lego figure in this important series.
In many ways, my generation is the ideal Lego customer. We buy Lego sets for our kids, setting them up with VIP cards at the local shop in the mall. We purchase the nostalgic sets that remind us of our own childhoods (like the Ecto 1 and the full original Ghostbusters Lego set I keep on my desk).
We fuel the development of everything from the recent Big Bang Theory Lego set to the expected Golden Girls one. And we are the ones that are spending hundreds of dollars and far more hours trying to construct the Star Wars Lego Death Star, while claiming we are doing so for our kids.
As parents, we should applaud Lego for making the women of NASA as important as the latest superhero. After all, these women were superheroes. And we should appreciate the universal appeal of such sets, not seeing them packaged in pink boxes and sold as “girl” Legos only to our daughters.
We should also yearn for Lego (and many others) to use these opportunities as true learning experiences. Yes, it can be difficult to talk with a middle schooler about death, particularly death as jarring as those caused by the Challenger explosion. But we also can’t keep our children living sheltered lives, hoping they believe the world is all bubblegum and lollipops.
Madame Curie gave herself radiation poisoning. The scientists behind the Manhattan Project created the most destructive weapon to mankind in the universe’s history. Even Galileo was tried for heresy and subject to house arrest for advocating science he knew to be true, despite public opinion.
Instead of protecting our children from some of the harshities our history, we should use opportunities like this as teachable moments. NASA and the space program were incredibly important components of our history and our success in the modern era. This success was not achieved without real sacrifices. Despite what our kids may learn if we could get them to watch the movie Apollo 13, not every potential tragedy ended with everyone safe and sound.
McAuliffe was an educator who would do anything and everything to bring the joys of learning to her own students and her own classrooms. Following her own dreams, she showed a generation of students what was possible. And she likely inspired a generation of learners – both male and female – to follow their passions and to be inspired by both the good and the bad their experienced.
She is just as important to the storyline of NASA as Ride, Margaret Hamilton, and Mae Jemison. Some may say even more so, as McAuliffe’s role reinvigorated a generation that had grown complacent, just as it had at the time of Apollo 13.
Christa McAuliffe deserves to be a part of Lego’s Women of NASA series. Lego has in the past made other moves to commemorate McAuliffe and the Challenger crew. However, this is not the moment to forget one great American teacher’s dream: to teach children about space.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Patrick Riccards is the chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and is the author of Eduflack.