March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

“PEOPLE has a special relationship with its readers,” says Billie Kajunski, 42, the magazine’s Letters/Syndication Manager. “Whether they’re angry at us or at somebody we’ve done a story about, they write from the heart.”

Seldom has that been more apparent than in your response to our Feb. 10 cover story on the tragic explosion of the shuttle Challenger. Of the 661 of you who wrote to us, 76 percent questioned our decision to focus on the New Hampshire school teacher, Christa McAuliffe and only mention her six lost colleagues: Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Gregory Jarvis. It’s a question we believe deserves an answer.

In order to bring the magazine to you each Monday, our writing and editing should be complete by the previous Tuesday night. When the shuttle disaster occurred on Tuesday at 11:39 a.m., our horror and disbelief echoed yours. Although we had an entire issue ready to go, we postponed our existing cover story and in the few hours left produced a new one focusing on the tragedy.

We felt, given the limited time available, that the strongest story would result from concentrating our efforts on a single crew member. McAuliffe was the obvious choice. Chosen to represent each of us on that mission, she epitomized the person for whom we feel a special affinity: the ordinary citizen doing extraordinary things.

Producing the story, however, required overcoming some formidable obstacles. By 4 p.m. assistant editor Ron Arias and photographer Christopher Little were aboard a chartered jet to Concord, N.H. to interview McAuliffe’s former students. Arias was back in New York by 9:30 p.m. and turned in his story four hours later. Meanwhile writer-at-large Alan Richman, with the help of a dozen correspondents and reporters, prepared his essay on the catastrophe and its significance. By 9:35 a.m. on Wednesday the eight-page story, with the cover, was completed.

In the weeks to come, Kajunski and her staff of three—Maureen Fulton, Kathy O’Connell and Mary Reilly—will be answering each of your letters. In the meantime we’re asking for more correspondence. In this issue (page 52) we are calling on you to suggest people and places Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev should visit when he arrives in the U.S. later this year. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

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