1986: Pierce Excited Over New Space

One-time aspiring astronaut enjoys her renovated planetarium

Donna Pierce at Highland Park High’s renovated Pierce Planetarium
Donna Pierce is in awe of Highland Park High’s renovated Pierce Planetarium. Staff Photo: Christina Barany

By Dan Koller | Staff Writer

A quarter-century after trying to reach outer space, Donna Pierce is still looking to the stars.

Pierce was one of three Highland Park ISD teachers who applied for a spot on the space shuttle Challenger. She, Charles Tillerson, and Ann Irizarry were featured in the Jan. 30, 1986 edition of Park Cities People, two days after Challenger exploded with New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe on board.

“I remember that morning like it was yesterday,” Pierce said last week. “There was frost on the grapefruit and orange trees in Florida, so I said, ‘Well, it’s not going off.’ So I came in [to the Highland Park High School planetarium] and did a show. Then I went into my office, and I had this radio — I still have it — that gets the TV stations. And I flipped it, and the second I flipped it is when it blew up.”

Despite the tragedy, Pierce said she wouldn’t hesitate to reapply for NASA’s “Teacher in Space” program. “You could get killed walking across the street,” she told us in 1986.

Donna Pierce 1986
Ann Irizarry (left) died last December at the age of 81. Charles Tillerson, 68, retired from teaching in 2008 but still coaches Highland Park’s math team.

But she never got another chance to apply. Following the Challenger accident, President Ronald Reagan canceled the program. McAuliffe’s backup, Barbara Morgan, eventually reached space in 2007, but only after she gave up teaching and became a full-fledged astronaut.

Although she will turn 77 in May, Pierce doesn’t plan to give up teaching anytime soon. She’s been running the high school’s planetarium since 1979 — after filling a similar role for 15 years at the Dallas Health & Science Museum as a Junior League volunteer — and her passion for her position has been revitalized this school year.

Since August, the rechristened Pierce Planetarium has received new seats, new carpet, a new sound system, and a SciDome digital-video system manufactured by Pennsylvania-based Spitz Inc.

“At the old Dallas Health & Science Museum, I learned on the Spitz A1,” Pierce said. “If it broke, it just had a rubber band. You just turned it by hand. So I learned on the first one, and now I’m on the new SciDome.”

Pierce is understandably eager to show off her new toys for visitors. During a visit last week, she demonstrated how she can display everything from diagrams of the constellations to a setting sun over Highlander Stadium.

“I’m like a kid in a candy shop,” she said.

Despite that statement, Pierce is not about to tolerate any real candy from any actual kids.

“Look at the new carpet. Do not put anything on it,” she told a class. “Look at the new chairs. They have to last another 30 years. Do not put your feet on them. Do not put your gum on them.

“I have to be the mama bear, and I am protecting these. These are my cubs.”

E-mail dan.koller@peoplenewspapers.com


The July 24 edition of Park Cities People featured a grim front page: two stabbings, two rapes, and a double suicide all happened within a period of 60 hours. One stabbing was fatal; 15-year-old Conrad Harris was killed by a burglar in his father’s UP home. The other victim, a gas station clerk, survived a separate incident.

On Sept. 9, the HPISD Board of Trustees approved a code of conduct prohibiting drug and alcohol use by students involved in extracurricular activities. “I hope 25-30 years from now we look back and say, ‘This made a difference,’ ” Superintendent Winston Power said.

On Dec. 1, Highland Park sports legend Bobby Layne died of a heart attack at age 59. He led the Detroit Lions to three NFL championships.

On Dec. 5, a judge ruled that the city of University Park owed up to $500,000 worth of unpaid overtime to 30 police officers to compensate them for their meal periods.

Highland Park resident Bill Clements won back the governor’s mansion on Nov. 4. Four years after being upset by Democrat Mark White, Clements beat his rival by the same margin: 53 percent to 46 percent. Clements, who cast his ballot at Bradfield Elementary School, was supported by 82 percent of Park Cities voters.

Valedictorian: Charlie Crosby
Salutatorian: Michael Yu
Blanket Award: Yu and Amy Meyers
Homecoming Queen: Mary Shook

Liesl Marie Williams, Tania Simmons Regard, Paige Gardner Pickens, Patricia Leigh Rippey, Anna Raquet Bass, Katherine Kelley Dittmar

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