Halpin to attend Challenger anniversary event at Kennedy Space Center

Chemistry instructor Myra Halpin brings her love of space flight and discovery to her teaching.

A photo on the wall of science instructor Myra Halpin’s office goes a long way toward explaining her interest in all things NASA and space flight-related. The photo shows a partial sphere view of Earth in the distance; in the foreground is the white surface of the moon. The photo, shot from the moon looking back on Earth, Halpin says, “has always fascinated me.”

Thirty years ago, Halpin was teaching in South Carolina when she applied and was accepted as one of 110 teachers nationally vying for the Teacher in Space spot onboard the Challenger space shuttle. NASA chose New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe; Halpin and the other teachers were named Space Ambassadors. The 1986 Challenger flight ended in tragedy when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew members.

This week, Halpin will join dozens of the original Space Ambassadors at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a memorial marking the 30th anniversary of the Challenger flight on Thursday, January 28, the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident. NASA’s Day of Remembrance also pays tribute to the crews of Apollo 1 and space shuttle Columbia and other NASA colleagues who lost their lives “furthering the cause of exploration and discovery,” as the agency describes it. Watch the January 28 remembrance celebration on Livestream.

The teachers have kept in touch over the years and reunited several times, including in 1992 to watch the successful launch of the shuttle Endeavour. Halpin has stayed involved with the families of the Challenger crew as well, helping with a Challenger Learning Center at Kids Place in Charlotte, one of several mini space-camp centers that the crew’s families established.

Today’s high school students are barely aware of the Challenger accident, Halpin says. “It’s in their history books,” but history classes usually run out of time before they get to the 1980s, she laughs. “I educate students only if they ask [about space flight history]. I don’t feel a missionary zeal, but I do want them to know there’s a frontier out there still.”

On the wall outside her office, Halpin has hung portraits of NASA astronauts she’s met over the years. “I incorporate a lot of space exploration in my teaching,” she says. She’ll ask students, “let’s suppose you have no gravity, how would this work? How would the chemistry and science be different without gravity?” Students in her chemistry research classes have worked on NASA rocket test flight-related research projects based on astronauts’ needs. This year a group of students is working on thin films that might absorb radiation, aimed at building radiation shields for astronauts. Another group is looking at how to determine the mass of something without gravity.  

With reduced funding, NASA recruits astronauts every two or three years now and takes far fewer people than it has in decades past. “But we still have a presence in space with the International Space Station, and we have hopes of going to Mars, so we still have a training program,” she says. Halpin would love to see a flight to Mars, perhaps sometime between 2025 and 2030, when Earth and Mars are the closest to each other as they get in 11- to 15-year cycles. She knows that she’s likely aged out of the window of time to be considered for the trip, but she’d welcome the resulting photos. As she told a News and Observer reporter 10 years ago, “I can’t think of anything more exciting than to see that blue marble from space.”