Teacher-in-Space finalists gather for Challenger disaster’s 30th anniversary

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FILE - This photo provided by NASA shows the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger mission 51L. All seven members of the crew were killed when the shuttle exploded during launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Front row from left are Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, and Ronald E. McNair. Front row from left are Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik. (NASA via AP)
This NASA photo shows the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger mission 51L. All seven members of the crew were killed when the shuttle exploded during launch on Jan. 28, 1986. (Associated Press/NASA)

Dozens of educators who competed alongside Christa McAuliffe to become the first teacher in space gathered Thursday to remember the seven astronauts who perished aboard Challenger 30 years ago.

Many of the teachers are retired now. They have gray hair. A few limp. But they still believe strongly in what McAuliffe hoped to accomplish aboard Challenger before disaster struck during liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.

“It’s really hard” to be back, said William Dillon, 77, a retired teacher who represented California in the competition back in the mid-1980s. He was at Kennedy Space Center for Challenger’s launch and had gotten to know not only McAuliffe, but a few of the other astronauts on board the doomed flight.

Linda Preston, also retired as a teacher, choked up as the names of the Challenger dead were read during the memorial service. The former astronaut reciting the names of all 24 astronauts killed in the line of duty over the years, Jon McBride, had to fight back tears.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Preston later confided to a reporter. She represented Utah in the teacher competition.

FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 28, 2011 file photo, June Scobee Rodgers, widow of Dick Scobee, commander of space shuttle Challenger, looks upward during the playing of the National Anthem at a remembrance ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday, Jan. 28, 2011. On the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger accident, June Scobee Rodgers _ widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee and longtime spokeswoman for the families of the lost astronauts _ is passing the torch to daughter Kathie. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
June Scobee Rodgers, widow of Dick Scobee, commander of space shuttle Challenger, participates in an anniversary memorial for the Challenger accident.  (Associated Press)

Close to 40 of the 113 remaining semifinalists for teacher-in-space traveled to Cape Canaveral for the anniversary commemoration, the biggest gathering ever for a NASA memorial like this.

“We felt we all wanted to be part of it,” said Connecticut semifinalist David Warner, who still teaches science, robotics and rocketry.

Another first: McAuliffe’s son, Scott, 39, took part in the ceremony. He said having his own two sons there with him — ages 6 and 8 — made it easier. It’s time, he said, that his children see and learn firsthand all about astronauts and the space program.

Scott McAuliffe works in education technology in Maine.

As the families of the lost Challenger crew marked the space shuttle’s 30th anniversary, there was a new voice to address the crowd.

June Scobee Rodgers — widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee and longtime spokeswoman for the group — passed the torch to daughter Kathie Scobee Fulgham.

Fulgham — not Rodgers — was on the stage for Thursday morning’s ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Because of a steady drizzle, the gathering was moved indoors, where the retired space shuttle Atlantis was suspended overhead.

The crowd numbered close to 400 and included family members of astronauts killed in all three of NASA’s spacecraft tragedies: Challenger; Columbia’s catastrophic descent on Feb. 1, 2003; and the Apollo 1 fire on Jan. 27, 1967.

For the seven astronauts’ loved ones, Jan. 28, 1986, remains fresh in their minds.

Steven McAuliffe, a federal judge in Concord, New Hampshire, still declines interviews about his late wife Christa, who was poised to become the first schoolteacher in space. But he noted in a statement that although 30 years have passed, “Challenger will always be an event that occurred just recently. Our thoughts and memories of Christa will always be fresh and comforting.”

McAuliffe said he’s pleased that “Christa’s goals have been largely accomplished in that she has inspired generations of classroom teachers and students.”

McAuliffe was presiding over a trial this week in Concord, and so Scott represented the family. Scott and his sister are now in their 30s. The McAuliffes normally do not take part in these NASA memorials, so Scott’s presence is especially noteworthy.

Along with the other Challenger families, Rodgers established the Challenger Center for Space Science Education just three months after the shuttle disintegrated in the Florida sky. A leak in the right booster doomed the ship; unusually cold weather that morning left Challenger’s booster rockets with stiff O-ring seals.

Today, there are more than 40 Challenger Learning Centers focusing on science, technology, engineering and math, mostly in the U.S. More are being built.

“They’re not just a field trip for kids. They’re actually lessons learned,” said Rodgers, an educator who lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “That’s why they’ve lasted.”

Fittingly, the crowd Thursday included schoolchildren from local Apollo Elementary.

McAuliffe’s backup, Barbara Morgan, a schoolteacher from Idaho who finally made it to orbit in 2007, poignantly shared memories of each member of the Challenger crew.

Besides Dick Scobee and Christa McAuliffe, the Challenger dead include pilot Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Gregory Jarvis.

At Kennedy, the Scobee contingent numbered 12, including June’s son Richard, a major general in the Air Force, and a 16-year-old granddaughter.

Dick Scobee was 46 years old when he died aboard Challenger barely a minute into the flight. Both his children are now in their 50s.

“For so many people, 30 years, it’s definitely history. It’s in the history books,” Rodgers said. For the family, “it’s like it’s just happened, which in a way keeps Dick Scobee young in our hearts, and the joy and excitement he had for flying.”