Dr. Olivia Allen: The Challenge of the Challenger

Allen%27s+certificate+for+applying+to+NASA+%28Courtesy+photo+from+Allen%29
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Dr. Olivia Allen: The Challenge of the Challenger

Allen's certificate for applying to NASA (Courtesy photo from Allen)

Allen's certificate for applying to NASA (Courtesy photo from Allen)

Allen's certificate for applying to NASA (Courtesy photo from Allen)

Allen's certificate for applying to NASA (Courtesy photo from Allen)

Katrina Christine and Kate McLeod

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January 28, 1986. The Challenger, a space shuttle about to ascend and make monumental history, was going to be the twenty-fifth flight of the space shuttle program. It was launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was a cold January morning in Cape Canaveral, and that seemly harmless cold turned out to be the start of a large disaster.  

Olivia Allen, or know as Dr. Allen at Whitehouse High School, applied to be a part of the Challenger space shuttle program as the first teacher in space. This year marks the 31st anniversary of the Challenger disaster.  

The opportunity was open to any educators…particularly a math or a science teacher,” Allen said. “I think that it would have been an absolutely wonderful opportunity for anyone to have been able to do that.”

At the time, Allen was teaching at Langham Creek High School in Houston, TX. Once she found out about the program, she talked to her husband about the opportunity and he said that he had a bad feeling about it.

I thought it was a neat idea and so I talked to my husband and he said that there’s just something about it that he didn’t think was a good idea,” Allen said. “I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, what a neat opportunity to be up in space talking back and forth to students!’”

After talking to her husband, Allen went ahead and got a recommendation letter from the principal at the high school she was teaching at. She submitted an application for the program and after going through the extensive application process was ultimately not selected in the end. Although sad at the time, the overall outcome was for the best, due to the fact that the shuttle exploded ten seconds after it launched and all passengers died on impact.

“My whole class was watching it,” Allen said. “They kept replaying it and replaying. It took off but then within seconds it just started to fall apart, it was a horrible sight.”

The flight crew consisted of Dick Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Judy Resnik, Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe, who was going to become the first teacher in space. That first teacher could’ve been someone other than McAuliffe, it could have been Allen. A turned down opportunity has become almost saving grace for both Allen and her family.

“When I got home that day, that was the comment that my husband had made, he said I told you I didn’t feel good about it,” Allen said. “It was an awful sight to see the parents in the viewing stands because they were right there in Florida.”

Even though Allen wasn’t able to be a part of the mission, it all turned out well in the end. Later after teaching at Langham Creek High School, Allen started teaching at WHS and has been for 7 years. She is a calculus teacher and her department chair.

“I think it would have been an absolutely wonderful opportunity for anyone to have been able to do that,” Allen said.

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