CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Hundreds gathered at NASA’s launch site Friday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, receiving words of hope from the widow of the space shuttle’s commander.
The chilly outdoor ceremony drew space agency managers, former astronauts, past and present launch directors, family and friends of the fallen crew — and schoolchildren who weren’t yet born when the space shuttle carrying a high school teacher from Concord, N.H., erupted in the sky.
The accident on Jan. 28, 1986 — just 73 seconds into flight — killed all seven on board, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.
June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger’s commander, Dick Scobee, urged the crowd to “boldly look to the future” not only in space travel, but in space and science education. She was instrumental in establishing the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.
“The entire world knew how the Challenger crew died,” she said. “We wanted the world to know how they lived and for what they were risking their lives.”
Rodgers and NASA’s space operations chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, placed a memorial wreath of red, white and blue-tinted carnations at the base of the Space Mirror Memorial.
The 42-foot-tall gleaming mirrored slab of granite bears the names of all 24 astronauts killed in the line of duty over the years — 17 of those in U.S. spacecraft.
The crew included commander Scobee; co-pilot Michael Smith; Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian-American in space; Resnik; Ronald McNair, the second African-American in space; McAuliffe; and Gregory Jarvis.
Dennis and Pat Cassidy of Franklin, N.H., blinked back tears as Rodgers spoke. Mrs. Cassidy recalled the joy she felt when McAuliffe was named as NASA’s teacher in space — she screamed she was so excited. When Challenger was lost, she couldn’t stop crying.
“Geez. You never expected it to happen. We never expect these kinds of things to happen, I guess,” she said, clutching a red rose.
Her husband recalled after the initial shock, feeling so badly for McAuliffe’s family, all present at the launch: her husband, two children and her parents. “All I could do was say a prayer for the family. And that’s what they should do today, say a prayer for the families.”
The Cassidys, wintering in Florida, made a point to be at the ceremony.
At the high school in Concord where McAuliffe taught, special assemblies were held Friday in her honour. Anniversary events also were planned at Challenger Learning Centers across the country.
This silver anniversary comes as NASA is winding down the space shuttle program. The fleet will be retired after three more flights this year to the International Space Station.
Friday’s speakers stressed that exploration will never be risk-free.
The Challenger astronauts demonstrated that painful truth — so did the lost crew of Columbia.
But they also showed “that we can learn from our mistakes and be better for them in the end,” said Robert Cabana, a former shuttle commander who now is the Kennedy Space Center director.
“They continue to urge us forward, to explore and to never quit just because it’s hard,” Cabana said. “They are a part of us forever, and we will not let them down.”
Challenger Center for Space Science Education: http://www.challenger.org/
Astronauts Memorial Foundation: http://www.amfcse.org/