The world watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded 78 seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986.
Families of the lost Challenger astronauts gathered Thursday with NASA to mark the disaster's 30th anniversary. For the seven astronauts' loved ones, the day remains fresh in their minds.
The Challenger dead include commander Dick Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, astronauts Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Gregory Jarvis, and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.
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Kathie Scobee Fulgham, the daughter of Scobee, took the stage the ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. 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.
Scobee's widow, June Scobee Rodgers, established the Challenger Center for Space Science Education just three months after the shuttle disintegrated in the Florida sky. Unusually cold weather that morning left Challenger's booster rockets with stiff O-ring seals; a leak in the right booster doomed the ship.
"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."
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."
The son of McAuliffe, who was poised to become the first teacher in space, was set to make a rare appearance in the audience Thursday. Scott McAuliffe 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.
"Challenger will always be an event that occurred just recently. Our thoughts and memories of Christa will always be fresh and comforting," McAullife's husband, Steven McAuliffe, said in a statement before the ceremony.
Steven McAuliffe said he's pleased "Christa's goals have been largely accomplished in that she has inspired generations of classroom teachers and students." She would be proud, he noted, of the Challenger Learning Centers.
McAuliffe's backup, Barbara Morgan, a schoolteacher from Idaho, rocketed into orbit in 2007 aboard Endeavour as a fully trained astronaut. Morgan was invited to speak Thursday at Rodgers' request.
Seven more shuttle astronauts died Feb. 1, 2003, aboard Columbia; that commander's widow, Evelyn Husband Thompson, attended Thursday's ceremony.
The event honored the Columbia Seven as well, along with the three Apollo 1 astronauts killed during a launch pad test on Jan. 27, 1967. NASA also planned observances at Arlington National cemetery, Johnson Space Center in Houston and elsewhere.