Postal Updates

Meet the Maryland teacher who narrowly avoided the 1986 ‘Challenger’ disaster

Mar 19, 2024, 8 AM
Teacher Kathleen Anne Beres was one of 10 educator finalists chosen for the ill-fated Jan. 28, 1986, flight of the space shuttle Challenger.

Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel

There is nothing nebulous about the schedule of the Goddard Space Flight Center employees’ stamp club. Its members gather at the NASA Visitor Center in Greenbelt, Md., at noon on the second Friday of every month, their periodicity as predictable as a planet’s.

On the wall of the room where the stamp club assembles are video screens that show a live feed from the International Space Station, where a viewer can see astronauts and cosmonauts tumbling about in weightlessness, performing experiments on scientific instruments and on their own bodies.

Lining the corridors outside the room are images of celestial gas clouds and clusters of galaxies where philatelic aliens might be showing off their precious collections of extraterrestrial envelopes beneath a double red sun.

And inside the room, during the club’s Feb. 9 meeting, was a member passing around her albums of space-related covers and souvenirs of the American Bicentennial.

A collector since childhood, she once shared a dream of liftoff with millions of other members of her space-mad generation.

However, she came much closer than the others to having that dream come true.

“I remember my dad pointing out Sputnik in the backyard,” Kathleen Anne Beres said, recalling her childhood in the suburbs of Baltimore. “And when we were sending chimps into space, I remember asking my parents why and they said, ‘Because they’re small’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m small!’ That’s when my parents knew they were in trouble.”

To some, trouble in 1960s America meant having a girl who thrilled at adventure and laughed at danger, who didn’t fit the stereotypes of the time.

“For me, the swings couldn’t go high enough and the see-saws couldn’t bump hard enough,” Beres said.

By the time she had graduated from Catholic high school and the College of Notre Dame and earned a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University, she had traded schoolyard recess for long-distance sailing, a pilot’s license and mountaineering, defying gravity whenever she could.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced that NASA would give a civilian schoolteacher a space shuttle ride to low Earth orbit. Beres was perfectly placed and qualified, teaching biology at Kenwood High School in Baltimore.

More than 11,000 starry-eyed teachers filled out the application. NASA whittled them down to two from each state. Maryland’s pair were Beres and David Zahren, a middle school instructor from Prince George’s County.

Beres was chosen from Maryland and then selected as one of 10 finalists who were sent to Houston, Texas, for rigorous astronaut training, even though their assignment in orbit was simply to float about the spacecraft and interpret the wonders of orbital flight for the next generation of would-be astronauts.

Many Linn’s readers know the rest of the story.

Christa McAuliffe, a high-school social studies instructor from New Hampshire, was picked to fly aboard the shuttle Challenger. Barbara Morgan, who was teaching second, third and fourth grades in Idaho, was named as McAuliffe’s backup. Beres was told that she might go up on a later shuttle mission.

“When they announced that it would be Christa, I felt an incredible sense of relief,” Beres said.

“Weren’t you jealous?” she was asked.

“Never, never,” she replied.

On Jan. 28, 1986, Beres was at Cape Canaveral watching from the VIP area when Challenger lifted off and then burst into vapor and tragedy 73 seconds into the flight.

“People were still euphoric, they were still cheering, but I knew what had happened,” Beres said. “The first thing I remember saying was ‘Bring them down Scobee, bring them down.’ ”

(Francis Richard “Dick” Scobee, who had piloted Challenger two years earlier, was the commander of the ill-fated 1986 flight.)

“My next thought was, ‘Oh, Christa!’ ” Beres recalled.

“Her being chosen, ultimately, saved my life,” Beres said, almost four decades later.

For years afterward the disaster, she couldn’t bear to watch a display of fireworks.

In January, when the United States Postal Service issued a $9.85 Priority Mail stamp (Scott 5827) with a James Webb Space Telescope photograph of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, Beres recoiled.

“It looks like [the remains of] Challenger,” she said.

Forty years ago, the girl who marveled at Sputnik almost got a chance to touch the sky. In falling short, she said, a precious lesson was learned: Not everyone can be a teacher in space, but anyone with the love of exploration can be a teacher on Earth.

“I have mountaineered on every continent,” Beres said. “It’s not just reaching the summit. It’s the journey.”

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