The following is part of a series describing the origins and namesakes of the buildings located on and around NHTI’s campus.
When asked to identify some of the more iconic structures associated with NHTI – Concord’s Community College, community members often mention the rocket ship and glass pyramid. They’re hard to miss, since they’re visible from most campus buildings, the Quad, and even the highway. But did you know that these imposing landmarks aren’t actually a part of NHTI’s campus at all? They belong to our neighbor, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.
The center opened on June 21, 1990, and is named for two of New Hampshire’s most famous astronauts: Sharon Christa McAuliffe (known more commonly as Christa), the first educator astronaut; and Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., the first American in space.
A Teacher Fated for the Stars
McAuliffe taught history, economics, and law at Concord High School from 1982-1985; prior to that she was a middle school teacher in the surrounding areas. She taught a class called “The American Woman,” which showcased the scientific, social, and cultural contributions of women throughout American history. She married her high school sweetheart and had two children.
In 1985, NASA sought to diversify interest in its Challenger space shuttle program. The nature of the shuttles allowed for increased civilian participation and experimentation, so NASA turned to America’s teachers to lead the next generation of astronauts and space enthusiasts. Of the 11,000 candidates, McAuliffe was chosen to “humanize” space exploration by journaling about her experience aboard the Challenger and recording educational lessons from space.
The fated flight turned into a national tragedy when, on Jan. 28, 1986, the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, prior to it exiting the Earth’s atmosphere. President Regan addressed the nation that evening, particularly the thousands of school children who had been watching the event live: “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
A later investigation found the cause to be a known design weakness in the solid fuel boosters that was exacerbated by the freezing temperatures the morning of the launch.
According to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center website, “[Christa’s] motivation to open minds, her emphasis on experiential learning and her belief that ‘I touch the future, I teach,’ guides our design of educational programs and exhibits at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center.”
The First American in Space
Shepard was born in Derry, N.H., in 1923, attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, and after a celebrated career in the Navy became the first U.S. astronaut to go into space.
The project to be the first person in space began in 1957 with President Eisenhower’s inception of the Space Race. NASA was established in 1958, and Shepard was chosen from a field of experienced military test pilots – none taller than 5”11” due to the size limitations of the Mercury spacecraft – to begin his training. The flight was scrubbed 6 times, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on April 12, 1961. Just a few weeks later, on May 5, 1961, Shepard took off aboard the Mercury Spacecraft 7, which he dubbed the Freedom 7, becoming the second person and first American in space.
His first flight into space, one of many he piloted, lasted only 15 minutes and brought him into a suborbital trajectory more than 101 nautical miles straight up. He was initially slated to pilot the Apollo 13 mission, which famously ended in near disaster. He was bumped instead to the Apollo 14 mission, and in early 1971 became the fifth and oldest (at age 47) person to walk on the moon.
Shepard died in 1998 after a battle with leukemia. In his honor, the Discovery Center’s leadership added a wing to the Christa McAuliffe Discovery Center. Modeled after an airplane hangar, this wing houses exhibits on space flight and exploration and showcases New Hampshire’s contributions to NASA’s space program, specifically in research and technological manufacturing.
The addition of this memorial wing prompted a name change to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. According the center’s website, “[Shepard] demonstrated great courage and curiosity as he played a key role in the development of our nation’s space program and served as a role model as the U.S. aspired to explore the universe outside earthly bounds.”
The Rocket and the Glass Pyramid
OK, but what about the landmarks? The rocket is a Mercury Redstone rocket, the same model on which Shepard was launched into space, and the glass pyramid is the exterior façade of the center’s domed planetarium, one of only three in the country to feature 10K high-resolution projectors.
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The information contained in this article was gathered from the NHTI Library archives and various online sources, including official NASA documentation. For more information about the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, visit its website at starhop.com.