Twenty years ago Sunday, space shuttle Challenger blew apart 73 seconds after blasting off from Florida, killing all seven astronauts on board. Among them was Christa McAuliffe, who was to have been the first teacher in space.
Commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith and astronauts Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Ron McNair and Greg Jarvis also died.
Challenger was brought down by a poorly designed seal in the shuttle's solid rocket booster.
Saturday, a ceremony remembering the Challenger accident is planned at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA workers paused Thursday to remember the crews of Challenger and Columbia, and the three astronauts who died in an Apollo launchpad fire in 1967.
Friday, June Scobee Rodgers, Dick Scobee's wife, remembered what she said was the best time of her life.
She said she stood at the Kennedy Space Center with the other families and cheered a "beautiful, absolutely fantastic launch."
Scobee Rodgers told The Associated Press it's taken 20 years for her to even mention what came next when, she said, "the unbelievable happened."
She said the families have kept the crew's memories alive by starting the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. The centers across the country allow kids to climb into shuttle simulators and finish the mission her husband began.
Johnson Center Remembers
A special ceremony Thursday at the Johnson Space Center remembered the astronauts, Houston television station KPRC reported.
"Back in 1986, we were spontaneously embraced by our friends, our community, the nation and even distant lands," astronaut Janet Kavandi read from a letter written by the wife of late Challenger astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka.
Kavandi, who said she was inspired to become an astronaut following the tragedy, said NASA families and the nation both feel the grief of a fallen mission.
"I think Americans feel that they sort of belong to this program as much as we do. I think, and I know because I have talked to a lot of Americans that say this, that we ride for them," Kavandi said.
Ronald McNair's wife, Cheryl, who attended the event, said that the support of NASA employees and friends has been measurable and much appreciated.
Ceremony speakers emphasized that they did not want any astronaut to have died in vain.
Johnson Space Director Mike Coats concluded the ceremony by saying, "Let's leave today committed to completing the journey of exploration."
Only a few family members of the astronauts killed in the explosion attended the remembrance Thursday because most of the families had already traveled to Florida for the Kennedy Space Center's ceremony, which will be held on Saturday.
Student Follows McAuliffe's Path
One student from Christa McAuliffe's school who was in the Florida crowd the day shuttle Challenger blew up has become a teacher himself.
Ben Provencal is known as "Mr. P." He's a special education assistant at a middle school in Concord, N.H.
Provencal was a third-grader in 1986. He remembers the emptiness he felt and says teachers and students didn't want to talk about space travel for a long time afterward.
Now, he focuses on other aspects of the trip, like the fun the kids had and learning rocket propulsion from a NASA scientist.
Former classmate Zach Fried said the tragedy didn't traumatize him and his friends for life. He thinks the experience may have helped them become more thoughtful people, who tend to do more socially-oriented things.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., will hold a 20th anniversary remembrance service on Saturday. A bell will toll seven times in honor of the astronauts.
The 10:30 a.m. ceremony is open to the public and will take place outside under the Pathfinder shuttle display.
David King, director of Marshall Space Flight Center, will be the speaker.
The Space Center will also show a new 75-minute film, "Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars," at noon and 2 p.m. in the Outpost in Space auditorium. Admission is free, but seating is limited to the first 150 people at each showing.
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