Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher and mother of two, was the "first citizen passenger" scheduled to go into space. Superficially, the presence of a teacher was to signify America's high regard for teaching and schooling.
Unknown to Christa McAuliffe, however, the more basic mission was aiding President Reagan's reelection. A teacher in Challenger was the cheapest way of making the incumbent President look like a supporter of teachers and schooling even though he had set out to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and was making drastic cuts in the Federal education budget.
When the decision was made to launch a Teacher-in-Space, the Reagan-Bush re-election campaign was already underway. Reagan-Bush was known to be vulnerable to Mondale-Ferraro on several issues. One of the most important was education. Mondale effectively highlighted Reagan's "second-rate leadership" that produced "an appalling record" of “educational neglect.” His campaign issued a "report card" on Reagan educational policy that gave the President "F's" in everything but dramatics and sports.
Shortly after Mondale launched this offensive a Gallup Poll revealed that a large majority of Americans thought Mondale more likely than President Reagan to improve public schooling. This pro Mondale trend concerned Reagan campaign officials. They felt the President needed to recapture at least some of the "education vote?" To do so they planned a counter offensive. It was launched on August 27, 1984.
While speaking at a District of Columbia junior high school, the President first announced several new members of his Advisory Council on Education. That was a warm-up. Then he proudly told the world who America's first passenger in space would be. "Today" the President said" I'm directing NASA to begin a search in all of our elementary and secondary schools and choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America's finest — a teacher. One year later Christa McCauliffe was selected from over 11,000 applicants.
Late Night THoughts on the Death of Christa McCauliffe