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Local teacher aimed for space shuttle

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Matt Terrell/Vail DailyRich Houghton, the athletics director at Battle Mountain High School, once trained to ride on the space shuttle and is in Florida to watch Wednesday's launch of the Endeavour.
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EAGLE-VAIL ” Rich Houghton remembers a brief cheer then cold silence when the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after launching in 1986.

He was there at Cocoa Beach, Fla., with more than 100 educators watching one of their own attempt to become the first teacher in space.

He remembers how unusually cold it was for Florida and how he was the only one wearing a down sweater. He remembers how deafening the take-off was at even three miles away.



And he remembers how for a half second before the disaster, everything looked normal, and that’s why he heard a cheer. Then when the flames spouted, crawled up the boosters and the giant plumes of smoke filled the air, the disaster become very obvious, and Cocoa Beach went silent with disbelief.

He heard “There’s been a major malfunction” over the PA. All the teachers were quickly escorted back to their hotel, where they could begin grieving together.



Houghton, now the athletics director at Battle Mountain High School, was then a math, science and P.E. teacher for a couple of Eskimo villages above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. He was there for eight years, then started moving south and away from the extreme Alaskan climate.

He grew up in the golden age of space exploration, watched a man land on the moon and has forever been fascinated by space travel. He imagined himself flying through space at more than 17,000 mph, circling the earth every 90 minutes with a god’s eye view. That’s why he applied for the Teacher in Space Program.

“The whole space program got me excited,” he said. “Exploration is dangerous, but the payoff is worth the danger.”



Houghton ended up being one of two representatives from Alaska chosen to compete with 113 other teachers for that place in the Challenger cockpit. While he wasn’t a finalist, he went through training exercises and was there to watch the Challenger take off.

The teacher that was chosen, Christa McAuliffe, was intense and focused, Houghton said. She was the reason the Challenger gained so much media attention and captured the interest of children across the country. She was also a big reason why the Challenger disaster had such a profound emotional impact on the nation, he said.

“She was a woman on a mission, a good representative of the teaching profession,” Houghton said.

Houghton has since worked with NASA’s Space Ambassadors program, traveling around and giving presentations to teachers and students about the space program, the science of shuttle launches and life in zero gravity. One of his favorite things to do is show students toys that astronauts take into space and have the kids predict how they’ll respond in zero gravity.

“Once I explain the concepts of friction and things like that, they usually get it right,” he said.

Space exploration is a great way to get students interested in math and science, Houghton said.

This Wednesday, Houghton will revisit Cape Canaveral to watch Barbara Morgan, one of the Teachers in Space ambassadors and McAuliffe’s original backup, lift off as a crew member on the shuttle Endeavour. She’s been waiting and training more than 20 years for this and is now an actual member of the Astronaut Corps, Houghton said.

They’ll be doing work on the international space station, and Morgan is a mission specialist who will be operating a robotic arm.

Houghton is looking forward to seeing a lot of his old friends from the Teacher in Space program. Part of him still wishes he could be in the cockpit of a space shuttle.

“They say it’s a life changing experience to see the world like that,” he said.

If your interested in learning more about the Challenger disaster, visit http://history.nasa.gov/sts51l.html. Here, you’ll find links to movie clips, photos, mission profiles, the presidential commission report on the disaster, biographies on the Challenger crew and a transcript of President Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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