Silver dollar unveiled for fallen 'Teacher in Space' Christa McAuliffe

Steven McAuliffe (left), a U.S. District Court judge and widower of NASA's first "Teacher in Space," together with FIRST founder Dean Kamen unveil the art for the Christa McAuliffe Silver Dollar at the Shepard-McAuliffe Discovery Center in New Hampshire. (Image credit: FIRST)

The design of the first U.S. coin to honor a teacher has been formally unveiled, showing the first educator to launch towards space.

The artwork for the 2021 Christa McAuliffe Silver Dollar was officially unveiled on Friday (Dec. 18), during a virtual presentation hosted by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the non-profit organization that will benefit from the coin's sale. As authorized by Congress, the commemorative coin is being issued in celebration of the life and legacy of McAuliffe, who died with her six crewmates aboard the Jan. 28, 1986 launch of the space shuttle Challenger.

"Almost 35 years ago, the world watched as tragedy unfolded in the skies over Florida. As the first participant in NASA's Teacher in Space program, Christa embodied the dreams of many who wish to reach for the stars," David Ryder, director of the U.S. Mint, said during the ceremony. "The Christa McAuliffe Silver Dollar will celebrate the life and legacy of a true pioneer, a passionate educator and an inspiration to millions."

"We hope this coin will honor Christa's memory and are proud to assist in the continued legacy of her mission to inspire young people to become science and technology leaders," said Ryder.

Related: Christa McAuliffe's lost Challenger lessons to be taught on space station

The coin's design was unveiled at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, New Hampshire by Steven McAuliffe, a District Court judge and the widower of Christa McAuliffe, and noted inventor Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST.

"I have seen the design we're about to unveil. It is awesome. It is incredible work," said Judge McAuliffe before he and Kamen revealed enlarged images of the coin's two sides.

The obverse, or heads-side, artwork focuses on McAuliffe's profile. The portrait is based on a Sept. 12, 1985 NASA photo that was taken while she was being briefed on the flight suit and personal hygiene equipment she would use aboard Challenger's STS-51L mission. U.S. Mint Artistic Infusion Program (AIP) designer Laurie Musser created the design, which was then sculpted by Mint medallic artist Phebe Hemphill.

"This carving of Christa is from one of my favorite photographs of her," Judge McAullffe said. "How that was accomplished in a relief is amazing to me. It is just gorgeous and I love it."

The obverse (at top) and reverse designs for the U.S. Mint's 2021 Christa McAuliffe Silver Dollar depicting NASA's fallen "Teacher in Space" and her legacy, continuing to inspire students. (Image credit: Mint via

The reverse (tails) design depicts McAuliffe in her role as a social studies teacher, from before she was chosen for NASA's Teacher in Space program from a pool of more than 11,000 applicants nationwide. She is shown smiling as she points forward and upward, symbolizing the future. Three high school-age students are also depicted, looking on with wonder.

"It memorializes Christa — but she's sitting on my shoulder and she's whispering in a rather loud stage whisper — I'd be remiss if I did not make the point that she always made, which is, it is not about her and it wasn't about her personally. It was about her in a representative capacity as a teacher. She was doing this for her profession," said Judge McAuliffe. "This coin, I think you should all see [it] in that light. If you are a teacher or you were a teacher or if you are going to be a teacher, this coin is for you."

"This coin represents you," he said, "and it represents the incredible work you do for our country and the incredible work you do for children."

The portrait on the obverse of the 2021 Christa McAuliffe Silver Dollar commemorative coin was based on this photograph, showing McAuliffe in training for her space shuttle mission in 1985. (Image credit: NASA)

To that point, the coin's reverse is inscribed with McAuliffe's quote, "I touch the future. I teach." The tails side also includes a tribute to her six fallen STS-51L crewmates, Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Elison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Ron McNair and Greg Jarvis.

"I am particularly appreciative that the Mint included the [six] stars for Christa's crewmates," said Judge McAuliffe. "I know she would be very happy about that as well."

The art for the tails side was created by AIP Designer Emily Damstra and sculpted by Joseph Menna, the U.S. Mint's chief designer.

The two sides' final designs were the same as recommended to the Secretary of the Treasury by the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the Commission of Fine Arts in June.

A surcharge from each Christa McAuliffe Silver Dollar sold will benefit the FIRST organization and its student robotics competitions for "the purpose of engaging and inspiring young people through mentor-based programs to become leaders in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

"I thought that if we could create a coin that would be a national recognition of a teacher, of a woman who went into space, it would be the perfect way to demonstrate we could inspire an entire generation of kids to appreciate science and technology," said Kamen. "Christa McAuliffe, the teacher, is all of that."

Other participants in the program broadcast Friday on FIRSTtv included New Hampshire Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Representatives Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster, Michigan Representatives Fred Upton and Debbie Dingell, Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer and NASA Exploration Technologies intern Jenna Kay Foertsch, who previously took part in FIRST competitions.

The Mint has yet to announce a sale price or release date for the Christa McAuliffe Silver Dollar, other than to note on its website that it will become available in 2021.

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.