BRADENTON -- More than 25 years have passed since three Southeast High School teachers seized an opportunity to reach beyond their classrooms and teach the nation’s children.
Teachers Herb Tschappat, Mike Wilder and Faust DeLazzer applied to be the first teacher in space. They heard President Ronald Reagan announce that the country’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration would make a teacher the first private citizen to join a space shuttle crew.
An extensive application process was completed by each of the Manatee County residents. They were asked about everything from their SAT scores to education levels, height and weight requirements.
“I’d always been a big fan of space. My parents talked with me about Sputnik,” Lakewood Ranch High School science teacher DeLazzer said about the world’s first artificial space satellite launched by the Soviet Union. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
“I’ve always been interested in space,” echoed Wilder, who currently works as the district’s leadership development coordinator. “I wanted to study how bees could function in a weightless environment.”
About 11,000 other teachers also responded. The spot ultimately was awarded to a Concord, N.H., teacher named Christa McAuliffe. She was 37 years old, an economics, law and American history teacher that Tschappat, Wilder and DeLazzer remember fondly. They never met her. But to them, she properly filled the spot that they as younger educators couldn’t quite reach.
That’s what makes this 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster so heartwrenching for them. To them, McAuliffe was their representative for the space program.
“She’d become so popular,” said Tschappat, who retired from Manatee County Schools as an assistant superintendent. “She was the all-American girl. She was like a national treasure.”
Wilder said, “She was the right person to put up there. She would actually conduct a lesson in space.”
Today, as the world remembers the Challenger disaster or what’s been called “the world’s first high-tech catastrophe to unfold on live TV,” Wilder, DeLazzer and Faust can’t help but remember that morning in vivid detail.
“That’s the moment you never forget,” Tschappat said.
DeLazzer and Tschappat held weightlifting class outside. They said the sky was a perfect light blue. Students were running laps around Southeast High School’s football field. DeLazzer and Tschappat watched as “the gold line” from Challenger’s trail went up in the sky.
Meanwhile, Wilder, who worked as a math teacher, stepped out of his classroom to watch.
The straight gold line from Challenger’s trail split into “three spider-web like plumes,” Tschappat said.
Wilder added, “I knew something was not right from the way the trail split.”
“I’d seen the first eight shuttle launches,” DeLazzer said. “I knew something was terribly wrong.”
“There wasn’t a sound,” Tschappat said. “We ran back in to find a radio or TV to see what happened.”
Each was later told that the Challenger blew up.
“The whole thing was so surreal and yet it was so real right in front of our eyes,” Tschappat added.
Recently, a student posed the question to DeLazzer, “What if it was you?”
He said, “I knew that going in. To discover things, you have to risk.”
Wilder said, “It’s certainly a reminder of the dangers and challenges of space exploration.
“But I believe America needs to aspire.”