NASA leaders, retired launch directors, families of fallen astronauts and space fans have marked the 35th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, vowing never to forget the seven who died during lift-off.
The pandemic kept this year’s remembrance more muted than usual.
Barely 100 people – all masked and seated or standing far apart – gathered on Thursday in front of Kennedy Space Center’s Space Mirror Memorial.
The late-morning ceremony was held almost exactly the same time as the accident shortly after lift-off on January 28, 1986.
The widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee quietly observed the anniversary from her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In a recent interview, June Scobee Rodgers said the presence of teacher Christa McAuliffe on the flight added to the crew’s lasting legacy.
Scobee Rodgers, herself a longtime educator, said her husband was assigned the teacher-in-space flight because of her own career.
NASA figured “he would have compassion for a teacher,” she told The Associated Press.
A social studies teacher in Concord, New Hampshire, McAuliffe was going to perform experiments and offer lessons from space.
Flags flew half-staff at NASA centres around the country, with small ceremonies also held at Johnson Space Center in Houston and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
This year’s observance focused on the Challenger crew – McAuliffe, Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair and Gregory Jarvis. But it also paid tribute to the 18 others whose names are carved into the massive granite mirror at Kennedy’s visitor complex.
Seven were killed during re-entry aboard shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. Three died in the Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad on January 27, 1967. Another was killed in a Virgin Galactic test flight in 2014. Plane crashes claimed the rest.
Poor management and a stifling culture contributed to both shuttle accidents. Challenger was brought down by eroded O-ring seals in the right solid rocket booster, Columbia by a chunk of foam insulation that broke off the fuel tank at lift-off and pierced the left wing.
Retired launch director Mike Leinbach – who was at Kennedy for both shuttle tragedies – said his one wish is for no more names to be added to the memorial.
“It’s already too full.”