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.
A quarter-century later, images of the exploding space shuttle still signify all that can go wrong with technology and the sharpest minds. The accident on Jan. 28, 1986, a scant 73 seconds into flight, nine miles above the Atlantic for all to see, remains NASA's most visible failure.
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 large granite slab bears the names of all 24 astronauts killed in the line of duty.
Rodgers is the founding chair of the nonprofit Challenger Learning Centers and also the author of a new book, "Silver Linings, My Life Before and After Challenger." She told CBS Radio News' Peter King this week that she remembers the Challenger crew not as the space pioneers we know -- but as the human beings she knew.
Rodgers said she hopes people remember them for the way they lived, rather than how they died. One can hear the smile in Rodgers' voice as she talks about them. "They were delightful people!"
The challenger explosion was the world's first high-tech catastrophe to unfold on live TV. Adding to the anguish was the young audience: School children everywhere tuned in that morning to watch the launch of the first schoolteacher and ordinary citizen bound for space, Christa McAuliffe.
She never made it.
McAuliffe and six others on board perished as the cameras rolled, victims of stiff O-ring seals and feeble bureaucratic decisions.
It was, as one grief and trauma expert recalls, "the beginning of the age when the whole world knew what happened as it happened."
"That was kind of our pilot study for all the rest to come, I think. It was so ghastly," said Sally Karioth, a professor in Florida State University's school of nursing.
The crew compartment shot out of the fireball, intact, and continued upward another three miles before plummeting. The free fall lasted more than two minutes. There was no parachute to slow the descent, no escape system whatsoever; NASA had skipped all that in shuttle development. Space travel was considered so ordinary, in fact, that the Challenger seven wore little more than blue coveralls and skimpy motorcycle-type helmets for takeoff.
In a horrific flash, the most diverse space crew ever - including one black, one Japanese-American and two women, one of them Jewish - was gone. The name of NASA's second oldest shuttle was forever locked in a where-were-you moment.
"You say 'Challenger,' and then we see that figure of smoke in the sky," said Karioth, who teaches death and dying classes.
There has been a growing list of American calamities since then.
Waco. Oklahoma City. Columbine. 9/11. Shuttle Columbia. Katrina. Virginia Tech. And now, Tucson.
With so much carnage, another space catastrophe would not have the same impact as Challenger, Karioth noted. "We're used to everybody dying now," she said.
The death of a young, vivacious schoolteacher, combined with NASA's stubborn refusal to share information about the accident and the realization that America's space program was fallible, added to the nation's collective pain.
President Ronald Reagan's poetic tribute soothed the day's raw emotions.
"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," Reagan told a grieving nation after canceling that night's State of the Union address. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and `slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to `touch the face of God."'
Watch the Jan. 28., 1986 CBS Evening News Report:
The first federal Martin Luther King holiday had just been observed. NASA's Voyager 2 probe, flying farther than any previous spacecraft, had swung past Uranus, discovering 10 new moons. "That's What Friends Are For," the AIDS charity anthem, topped the music charts. And a 37-year-old schoolteacher from New Hampshire was about to rocket into orbit.
"Imagine a history teacher making history," McAuliffe observed before the flight. She got an apple from a technician atop the ice-encrusted launch pad, before boarding Challenger one final time.
In the 20s at daybreak, the temperature had risen only into the mid-30s by the time Challenger blasted off at 11:38 a.m. "Go at throttle up," radioed commander Scobee.
What happened next was unthinkable, his widow says.
"It was really a shock wave that went across our country and around the world," June Scobee Rodgers said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. "People witnessed the loss of Challenger over and over on their televisions."
Dick Scobee. Michael Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Judith Resnik. Ronald McNair. Christa McAuliffe. Gregory Jarvis. The first of the shuttle astronauts to die on the job.
Seventeen years later, almost to the day, seven more astronauts were killed, this time at the end of their mission. Instead of booster rockets and freezing launch weather, fuel-tank foam insulation was to blame. The similarities between Challenger and Columbia, though, were haunting. Another multiethnic crew lost, more poor decision-making, an intolerant work culture, drum-beating pressure to launch.
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.
NASA hopes to get Discovery flying by the end of February. Endeavour, Challenger's replacement, will follow in April. It will fly with or without commander Mark Kelly, who is tending to his wounded wife, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot Jan. 8 in Tucson, Arizona. Atlantis will close out the 30-year shuttle program with a summertime flight, No. 135.
Shuttle program manager John Shannon prefers not "to compare and contrast" the Challenger era and now. But he points out that he has felt "zero pressure" to rush the remaining flights, even though "we kind of get beat up a little bit" in some quarters for all the delays.
Roger Launius, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, says: "When we look back 50 years from now on the shuttle program, we are going to view it as this remarkable technological achievement. And it had a remarkable run for 30 years. Some tragedies along the way, but enormous successes as well."
At the high school in Concord where McAuliffe taught, special assemblies were held Friday in her honor. Anniversary events also were planned later in the day at Challenger Learning Centers across the country.
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."
Steven J. McAuliffe, widower of Christa McAuliffe, said in a statement Thursday that remembrances by people across the country are "both comforting and inspirational to our family."
McAuliffe, a federal judge in Concord, N.H., said, "Christa confidently and joyfully embraced life, no less than her friends and colleagues on Challenger, and no less than the crews of Columbia, Apollo 1, and all of those people who courageously follow their own paths every day. I know Christa would say that that is the most precious lesson - ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions."